The United States has only trained approximately 60 Syrian rebel fighters as of July 3, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, saying the number is “much smaller” than the administration hoped to train at this point.
“I said the number 60, and I can look out at your faces and you have the same reaction I do, which is that that’s an awfully small number,” he said.
Carter’s admission highlights the increasing concern over the effectiveness of a program to train a local fighting force to combat ISIS in Syria.
The low numbers are blamed on a strict vetting process that includes ensuring the fighters are committed to combat ISIS, as opposed to the Assad regime, and passing a counter-intelligence screening.
“We make sure that they, for example, aren’t going to pose a green-on-blue threat to their trainers; that they don’t have any history of atrocities,” Carter said.
The military is currently vetting 7,000 volunteers. The goal of the program is to train 3,000 to 5,000 fighters per year, a far cry away from 60 being trained now.
In Iraq, the training of Iraqi security forces has also been slowed by a lack of people to train. Citing the highly sectarian nature of the Iraqi state as the reason behind the lack of trainees, Carter insisted that Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi is working to engage the Sunni and Kurdish communities to add more forces to the training pipeline.
“We expect them to grow, we hope they grow,” Carter said. “But what we need from the Iraqi government is the enrollment of Sunnis in the Iraqi security forces and the commitment of the Iraqi government to pay them, to equip them with our help.”
Getting the Iraqi security forces to fight is the “silver bullet” to defeating ISIS, said Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey. Almost 11,000 Iraqi soldiers, Peshmerga forces, and 2,000 counter terrorism personnel have been trained by US forces. A strong Iraqi military that can fight ISIS on the ground while coalition warplanes hit ISIS targets from the air has been central to the administration’s plan to defeating ISIS.
Carter and Dempsey faced sharp criticism of the administration’s strategy from Committee Chairman, Sen. John. McCain (R-Arizona), who characterized the administration’s thinking as having a “disturbing degree of self-delusion”.
“It’s not that we’re doing nothing,” McCain said. “It’s that there is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are doing currently will be sufficient to achieve the president’s long-stated goal of degrading or ultimately destroying ISIL, either in the short term or the longterm.”
Carter pointed to the the eventual campaign to retake the key city of Ramadi, which was taken over by ISIS after Iraqi forces fled the city in May, as a measure of success.
“This will be a test of the competence of the Iraqi security forces,” Carter said. “And it’s a test that they must pass…we’re going to take the time and encourage them to take the time so that the operation, when they do conduct it, is successful.”