Less than 200 moderate Syrian rebels have started training with U.S. military advisers through a new Pentagon-run program, and none has graduated, a Defense Department spokesman said Thursday.
“This is a choke point, frankly,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
The training began in May, and is under the command of Army Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, a veteran Special Operations commander. Before any rebel can start training, he must be vetted for possible ties to terrorist groups and they have to leave the battlefields of Syria — a significant challenge.
Thus far, about 2,000 rebels have been vetted, but only 1,500 made it through the screening process, Warren said. Of those, “at best” 180 have started training, he added.
The program was conceived last year as a way to develop a ground force to pair with American air power in Syria. The U.S began airstrikes targeting the Islamic State nine months ago.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the time that it was important for the United States to take on the mission “right, not fast,” but it appears it has faced even greater difficulties than expected
The Pentagon’s lack of progress, as well as potential cuts to a CIA training program, raise questions about the ability of the United States to help field a rebel force large enough to take back territory from the militants. The initial Pentagon plan called for the training of about 5,000 rebels, but Dempsey said last year that it would take more like 12,000 to 15,000 to recapture territory.
Warren said Thursday that it is unclear how long the rebels will remain in training once they arrive at the sites in Turkey and Jordan. That will be determined by their capabilities as fighters.
“The training will take as long as it takes, based on the skill we see in the trainees,” Warren said.
Dempsey and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter acknowledged the problems in the training program Wednesday, without detailing the numbers. Dempsey said it is too early to give up on the program.