The Pentagon Wants To Train 15,000 Syrian Fighters. So Far It’s Got 60.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter stands by his seat as he arrives at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 7, 2015.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Defense Secretary Ash Carter stands by his seat as he arrives at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 7, 2015.

Tense words between Sen. John McCain and Defense Secretary Ash Carter reveal that the U.S. has not decided how to defend the fighters if they are attacked by the Assad regime.

The U.S. has begun training only 60 fighters to take on the Islamic State in Syria, Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged in a heated hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday morning. And not only is the number “much smaller than we hoped for at this point” — three months into the program — but the U.S. has not yet determined what it will do when those fighters are attacked by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Carter said.

“I can look at your faces and you have the same reaction I do, which is that’s an awfully small number,” the defense secretary told the senators. It will, he said, “get larger over time.”

Some 7,000 volunteers are awaiting approval to begin the training, Carter said. The defense secretary explained that U.S. law sets a high bar for the vetting, which includes counterintelligence screenings to ensure trainees won’t “pose a green-on-blue-threat to trainers.” Potential fighters must also pass a background check for atrocities and display a willingness to abide by the laws of armed conflict.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is generally deferential to Carter but hostile toward Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who testified with him. Yet on Wednesday, McCain did little to hide his frustration about the effort to train and equip moderate Syrians to fight the Islamic State.

“You mentioned we’re currently training about 60 fighters. I gotta tell you Mr. Secretary, after four years, that’s not a very impressive number,” McCain said.

He then asked whether the U.S. would defend the fighters if they engaged with Assad’s forces. Carter responded, “We are telling them that we are arming and training them in the first instance to go after ISIL and not the Assad regime; that’s our priority.”

Pushed by McCain, he continued, “I think we have some obligation to them once they are inserted in the field … they know we will provide support to them,” but the decision on what that would look like “will be made when they are introduced.”

McCain responded sharply, calling it an “unpleasant exchange” and accusing Carter of evading his questions. “That is a small comfort to the people you are recruiting now that a decision will be made later on,” he said.

Carter ultimately said that fighters haven’t been told they’ll be defended.

McCain called that shameful. “You have not told them you will defend them because you have not made the decision, and you want to train them quickly and send them in,” he said.

The train-and-equip program is meant to enable Syrians to fight the Islamic State, as an alternative to inserting American and coalition forces into the country. Such an intervention is opposed by Assad, who is battling both the Islamic State and rebels amid a four-year civil war believed to have killed more than 200,000 people. The Obama administration’s stated position is that Assad does not have a role in Syria’s future, but it has been ambiguous on its strategy to achieve that end.

“We know from our history in the region that putting U.S. combat troops on the ground as a substitute for local forces will not produce enduring results,” Carter said in his opening statement Tuesday.

Carter, who had promised in his February confirmation hearing before the committee to give unvarnished military advice, later added, “I wanted to tell the truth and I did tell the truth. We expect that number [of Syrian fighters being trained] to improve, but you deserve to know where things stand.”

Carter said the military is way behind its interim goal of training 3,000 fighters by year’s end, 5,400 by May 2016. But even if the military meets its ultimate goal of training more than 15,000 fighters over three years, few expect this strategy to defeat the Islamic State and lead to a political solution that would remove Assad and restore a stable Syria. The revelation that a mere 60 fighters are being trained did little to assuage concerned lawmakers who, after some debate, approved the $500 million train-and-equip program last September.

Carter said Wednesday that a similar effort is also struggling in Iraq, which is the main theater of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State because of Baghdad’s request for help.

Some 3,550 American personnel at six locations across Iraq are working to build the capacity of Iraqi forces and advise and assist them. But that effort too is suffering from a lack of trainees, Carter said. As of June 30, the coalition has received enough volunteers to train roughly 8,800 Iraqi Army soldiers and Peshmerga fighters, along with 2,000 counterterrorism service personnel. Another 4,000 are undergoing training.  

Carter and Dempsey’s appearance on Capitol Hill followed a rare visit from President Obama to the Pentagon Monday to meet with his national security team and receive a briefing on the Islamic State fight. In brief comments, the president defended the strategy and again urged patience.

“This will not be quick,” Obama said. “This is a long-term campaign.”

Wednesday’s hearing is likely to be one of Dempsey’s last before he retires this summer. Last week, in releasing a new National Military Strategy, he warned, “We are more likely to face prolonged campaigns than conflicts that are resolved quickly.”

Obama’s pick to replace Dempsey, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, will receive his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Dunford’s nomination is expected to be the first of several shakeups to top brass with a year and a half left in Obama’s term and nearly a year into the Islamic State fight.

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