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US: 4 or 5 US-trained rebels still fighting in Syria

17th Sep 2015
US: 4 or 5 US-trained rebels still fighting in Syria
WASHINGTON (AA): Only “four or five” troops from the first batch of 54 U.S.-trained and equipped Syrian rebels are still actively fighting in Syria, the head of U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.

Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the $500 million program’s “slow start” is not fully indicative of Washington’s efforts to combat Daesh.

“But I think it’s important to remember that this element is designed to be a compliment to all the other things that we’re doing. So we’re going to use and we are using every tool that we have available to us in our inventory,” he said.

The train and equip program has met considerable setbacks as it seeks to develop a Syrian force capable of fighting and defeating Daesh. Its fighters have come under attack from al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, who abducted seven fighters before later releasing them. An additional wave of rebels has yet to be deployed.

The U.S. initially sought to deploy 5,400 rebels to Syria per year.

Testifying alongside Austin was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth, who said that there are currently only 100-120 fighters undergoing training for a future deployment.

Part of the problem the U.S. has faced in gaining new recruits is that many are seeking to fight Syrian government forces, not just Daesh, which is the sole target of the program, according to Wormuth.

“Because the authority we have focuses our program on fighting ISIL, there are a number of individuals who might like to receive training from the United States or equipment for that matter, but they want to fight the regime, and that’s not the focus of our program,” she said, adding that other restrictions, including age and dependability, further decreases the rebel pool.

As the strategy continues to flounder, U.S. special operations forces have been assisting Northern Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG), according to Austin.

“At the very outset they began to engage elements like the YPG and enable those elements, and they are making a difference on the battlefield. And there are tens of thousands of the YPG out there, they’re right now fighting ISIL,” he said, adding, “Because the Syria train and equip program is slower getting started than we would like for it to be doesn’t mean that were not creating effects on the battlefield.”

Central Command later clarified that Austin was referring “to the coordinating relationship that U.S. Special Operations Forces share with Syrian anti-ISIL forces,” which is done outside of Syria in northern Iraq.

“There are no U.S. military forces on the ground in Syria, nor have we conducted any U.S. military training of indigenous Syrian forces in Syria,” the command said.

Washington’s setbacks in developing a new Syrian force have been a continued thorn in the side of the administration’s efforts to combat Daesh and bring a political transition to war-torn Syria.

Most recently, Russia’s military buildup in Syria to assist embattled President Bashar al-Assad vexed administration officials who have warned that the policy is doomed to failure.

The backing, which reportedly includes the deployment of T-90 tanks and other heavy weapons, and the expansion of an airbase near Syria’s coastal city of Latakia, marks an expansion of Russian influence in the region not seen in 40 years, said Sen. John McCain.

“This is an expansion of Russian power in the Middle East that we have not seen in four decades, and it will allow Putin to further prop up Assad, fuel his indiscriminate killing machine, play kingmaker in any transition, undermine U.S. goals, policy and operations, and, ultimately, prolong this horrific conflict,” McCain said. “The main beneficiary will be ISIL.”

Author: Michael Hernandez
[Photo: Barack Obama (R), US President, and Gen. Llyod Austin, Central Command Commander. Photographer: United States Department of Defense/Pool/Myles Cullen/Anadolu Agency]

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