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Revamped U.S. training program, with new goals, has trained fewer than 100 Syrians so far

A group the United States calls the Syrian Democratic Forces gather at a firing range during a visit by U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, to northern Syria. (Robert Burns/AP)

U.S. military officials are considering ways to ramp up training of Syrian fighters against the Islamic State as the Pentagon moves cautiously forward with a revamped program to create an effective local ground force.

Several U.S. officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military efforts, described the steps the Pentagon has taken since late last year, when the Obama administration abandoned an earlier Syria training plan. After repeated setbacks to that program, which aimed to create an army of Syrian fighters from scratch, officials settled on a different approach, one that would train only small numbers of leaders or other key personnel from local units who could act as a liaison with U.S. and allied forces attacking the Islamic State from the air.

Since the original program was revised, U.S. military personnel have trained fewer than 100 additional fighters, mostly outside of Syria, officials said. Those trained are specialized fighters whom military officials describe as “spotters” rather than ordinary infantry troops.

“What we’re looking at now is taking out key enabler personnel from certain units, training them and then reinserting them so they can provide information to the coalition to enable us to then target ISIL,” one official said. ISIL is another term for the Islamic State.

The output of the revamped program is only a modest addition to that of the initial plan that, after months of work and millions of dollars, only trained about 200 fighters before it was ended. But officials said the relatively small numbers in the current program is not a reflection of renewed difficulties, but of a more targeted approach that is designed to assist existing units fighting the Islamic State.

“The primary thrust of our counter-ISIL approach in Syria is to partner with and equip these forces that have succeeded in taking away 20 percent of [territory previously held by militants], primarily in northern Syria,” another official said.

Officials pointed to the advances that Kurdish and Arab forces, backed by American air power and, more recently, guidance from U.S. Special Operations troops on the ground, have made in northern Syria in recent months. This week, allied Syrian forces battled militants in Manbij, a key transit town near the Turkish border whose capture has been a U.S. priority.

The Obama administration says local forces have picked up momentum against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. Just this week, Iraqi commanders announced their recapture of Fallujah, which was the first city in Iraq to fall to the Islamic State.

New details of the Syria training effort shed new light on the mission of the elite U.S. forces in Syria, whose activities the Pentagon has sought to keep out of public view. With about 300 Special Operations troops on the ground, the Pentagon is now overseeing a patchwork of activities in support of various friendly Syrian factions across the country. Those include fighters from northwest and southern Syria trained in the original Pentagon program; Kurdish troops battling the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria; and Arab tribal forces who military officials hope will eventually prove capable of encircling militants in their de facto capital of Raqqa.

U.S. forces in Syria, in northeast Syria far from government forces, are primarily advising and equipping local forces as they seek to recapture territory from the Islamic State.

At the same time, other U.S. personnel continue to train Syrian “enabler” forces at a slow clip outside Syria, at facilities in Jordan and Turkey.

Officials said that, with six months behind them in the revised training scheme, they are now looking at options to expand current training activities, potentially within or outside Syria. “We’ve had a couple of trials and we’re going to look to continue to develop off of those,” the first official said.

According to the second official, the goal is “to build up what has been working.”

In April, President Obama announced a significant expansion to the U.S. Special Operations presence in Syria, a sign of increasing comfort with the small, vulnerable U.S. operation in a country whose government remains a foe. The following month, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, made a visit to a training site in northern Syria.

The Pentagon initiative is separate from a CIA-led training program that has provided support to rebels battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This week, the New York Times and Al Jazeera reported that weapons destined for those rebels were diverted and sold on the black market.

Officials said the Pentagon is seeking to avoid similar problems in part by giving Syrian forces limited amounts of ammunition, equipping those units on a operation-by-operation basis. They also hope that having American personnel on the ground will provide a check on what happens to U.S.-provided weaponry.

“These are … transactional relationships,” the first official said. “We provide enough for them to accomplish the next objective.”