A rebel fighter gestures as he shoots his weapon during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, on the frontline of Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed neighborhood on May 23, 2015. (Reuters/Hosam Katan)

There are only four or five American-trained Syrian rebels currently fighting against the Islamic State, the top general leading the effort to build a force to counter the militant group in Syria said Wednesday.

The tiny number of fighters are part of the New Syrian Force, the byproduct of a $500-million-dollar train and equip program that was launched officially in December to train moderate Syrians to fight the Islamic State.

The remarks by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, angered members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who said the program is a failure.

The training first came under scrutiny in July when Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter told the Senate Armed Service Committee that only 60 fighters had been trained with roughly 7,000 in the training pipeline. The quota, set at the program’s outset, called for 3,000 to 5,000 fighters to be trained in the first year.
Carter claimed the slow going was due in part to a stringent vetting process for the Syrians, which included a polygraph and background checks.

[Syrian rebels get their first U.S.-trained fighters]

A few weeks after Carter’s July remarks, the first element of roughly 50 American-trained fighters, re-entered Syria, after completing their training in Turkey. By the end of the month the fledgling force had been attacked by the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-Al Nusra, and a number of the rebels were seized by the Nusra group.

Christine E. Wormuth, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy told the committee the initial plan for developing a 12,000-strong New Syrian Force may be abandoned.

[In further blow to training program, U.S.-backed rebels abducted in Syria]

Instead she spoke about a strategy — described in a Foreign Policy article Wednesday — in which future fighters trained by the United States will embed with other moderate groups — such as Syrian Kurdish fighters — but in much smaller numbers. The individuals would take on an adviser role, much like American Special Operation Forces, and would help train other fighters in addition to assisting with coordinating coalition airstrikes.

Both Austin and Wormuth testified that the second class of fighters only has 120 Syrians enrolled.

“We expect the New Syrian Force’s footprint to grow over time,” said Austin.