The Pentagon pushed back Friday against claims that its program to train Syrian fighters to help defeat the Islamic State is in tatters, asserting that two new classes of recruits are underway and noting that in any case, the United States is increasingly relying on other fighting groups.
Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, also claimed that the first group of New Syrian Force trainees had defeated, with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, a band of 50 al Qaida-affiliated militants who ambushed them July 31 in northern Syria.
“At the end of that battle, there were more New Syrian Force guys standing than there were al Nusra Front guys standing,” Ryder said. Nusra is al Qaida’s Syria branch.
The fate of the American training program has been a major topic at the Pentagon since news broke a week ago that some of the U.S.-trained Syrians had been abducted by Nusra after they entered Syria from Turkey. Critics of the program, who have labeled it too small to train an effective force to fight the Islamic State, said the abductions underscored its inadequacy.
But while acknowledging that the initial foray into Syria for the group, which was trained under a $500 million program approved by Congress, had been less than ideal, Ryder insisted that the program was going forward.
“It’s important to keep in mind that success does not hinge on one fight or one event, and we’re still in the early stages of implementing this program,” Ryder said.
Ryder also pointed out that other U.S.-allied groups have taken back “large swaths of territory” from the Islamic State. He praised in particular Syrian Kurdish forces that largely had not come to U.S. attention when Congress approved the Syrian training program last September. The U.S. began closely working with the Kurds in October in a campaign to prevent the Islamic State from capturing the border town of Kobani. Since then, U.S.-Kurdish cooperation has expanded.
“Syrian Kurds in the northeastern portion of the country have performed exceptionally well,” Ryder said. He said the Kurds are being aided by Syrian Arabic and Turkmen fighters.
“As they continue to progress, they are building regional coalitions specifically with local Arab forces committed to defeating ISIL and expelling them from these lands,” Ryder said.
That success has made it less necessary for the U.S. to train its own Syrian forces for the battlefield. Ryder called any forces trained under the $500 million program “additive in nature.”
“They’ll further contribute to what’s already being done by the Syrian Kurds and other anti-ISIL forces,” he said.
When the Obama administration first announced the so-called train and equip program, it said it wanted to train and field 5,000 Syrians in the first year. That figure is now considered unrealistic. Only about 60 have been trained to date, and of the 6,000 Syrians who the Pentagon says have volunteered for training, many were rejected by background checks intended to uncover unacceptable political sympathies or criminal histories.
Others fell off during the intensive 10-week training, while still others were unwilling to sign pledges that they would not fight soldiers of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but focus instead on the Islamic State militants.
“The program is off to a bad start, but it’s not dead, and indeed we have recruits,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy.
Still, Tabler said, the program is unlikely to thrive until the Obama administration drops its restriction that trainees must pledge to fight the Islamic State, not the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The rebels, as well as a number of their backers in Turkey and the Arab Gulf, want to fight ISIL and Assad simultaneously,” he said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
But assembling a force from scratch to combat the Islamic State in Syria has become far less urgent.
The Syrian Kurdish militia that the United States works closely with, the Popular Protection Units or YPG, by their Kurdish initials, number between 17,000 and 20,000 fighters and require little U.S. training. YPG commanders are authorized to summon U.S. aircraft to support them in combat, and the militia has scored several major victories over the Islamic State, with U.S. air support.
The YPG now controls about 80 percent of Syria’s Hasaka province, according to some estimates, and recently took control of the key border crossing of Tal Abyad.
As for the training program, two more classes of Syrians are in training, Ryder said, and hundreds more have volunteered.
Ryder refused to say what has become of the initial 54 trainees who entered Syria last month and were embedded with a Syrian rebel unit know as Division 30. But McClatchy learned from other officials who asked to remain anonymous that about one-third have returned to Turkey, another third remain with Division 30, that 10 or so are missing and that a handful were killed in combat with Nusra.
“No one is surprised at how dangerous and how fluid the situation is in Syria,” Ryder said. “There are many, many groups right now that are all fighting in Syria’s civil war.”
Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, elaborated on the complexity in an email to McClatchy.
“I wanted to highlight that we’ve long said that the train-and-equip program will focus first and foremost on preparing appropriately vetted Syrian opposition forces to counter ISIL,” Smith wrote. “We recognize, though, that many of these groups now fight on multiple fronts, including against the Assad regime, ISIL and other terrorists.”