National Security

Senators call U.S. effort to train Syrians to fight ISIS ‘a joke’

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin on Capitol Hill Wednesday. AP

Senators from both parties on Wednesday derided as an abject failure a key initiative of President Barack Obama’s plan to combat the Islamic State after Pentagon leaders reported that the $500 million training program has placed only “four or five” fighters on the battlefield nine months after Congress authorized it.

The so-called Syrian train-and-equip program has gone so poorly, said Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who heads the U.S. Central Command, and Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of defense, that the Pentagon is weighing embedding American special forces with the next group of fighters to help protect them – a move that would draw the United States more deeply into that country’s four-year-long civil war.

Austin also acknowledged that Russian warplanes now arriving in Syria to support the government of President Bashar Assad could come into conflict with American and allied jets that have conducted thousands of airstrikes there in the last year.

“If they’re trying to operate in the same (air) space, that possibility is clearly there,” Austin said in response to a question from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat.

Obama administration officials said they were considering how to respond to a Russian proposal for military talks over Syria, where Moscow is expanding its forces even as U.S. warplanes conduct daily airstrikes against Islamist militants.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was talking with the White House and the Pentagon about the Kremlin proposal, which was made during recent phone calls with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

We have to acknowledge that this is a total failure. It’s just a failure. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the fact.

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama

Kerry did not offer details of the proposal but suggested it was about “deconfliction” – coordination to ensure that U.S. and Russian aircraft do not collide or threaten each other.

Senators challenged assertions by Austin and Wormuth, along with recent claims by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the U.S.-led air campaign has been successful since it started 13 months ago.

“One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that ISIL is losing and that we are winning,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s chairman, said using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “And if you’re not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing. Stalemate is not success.”

A central component of the American strategy has been the U.S. effort to train and equip what the Obama administration calls the New Syrian Force, but a bipartisan mix of senators openly mocked the results of that initiative.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said the training program should be completely overhauled or scrapped.

“We have to acknowledge that this is a total failure,” Sessions said. “It’s just a failure. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the fact.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, called the program “a joke.” Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, suggested it would be better to divert some of the money to well-established Kurdish militias that in recent months have reclaimed some territory in northern Syria from the Islamic State with the help of U.S.-led bombing raids.

“We’re counting (the number of trained New Syrian Force fighters) on our fingers and toes at this point when we had envisioned 5,400 by the end of the year,” McCaskill said.

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest pushed back against the criticism of the Syrian train-and-equip program, saying in effect that the White House had long opposed such a program.

“Many of the most ardent critics of this administration, particularly when it comes to our Syria policy, have suggested that a much more significant and deeper investment in this training effort is what the administration should have pursued years ago,” he said. “So it is true that we found this to be a difficult challenge, but it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

But Earnest gave no indication the administration was prepared to kill the program, for which it is seeking an additional $600 million next year.

McCain urged the Pentagon to allow Syrians who want to battle Assad’s government to take part in the training; he said the program’s limitation that the New Syrian Force fight only the Islamic State had discouraged thousands from signing up.

4-5 Number of U.S.-trained New Syrian Force troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

Wormuth countered that the law Congress passed creating the train-and-equip program limited the New Syrian fighters to combating the Islamic State.

“We certainly are looking at our recruiting and screening procedures all of the time,” she said. “We are looking at the kinds of criteria that we have in place. But right now our criteria is very consistent with the kinds of guidelines Congress gave us.”

Austin also argued that the train-and-equip program was less important now than when it was conceived a year ago. He said that local armed groups are scoring important battlefield successes against the Islamic State. Those groups were largely unknown to U.S. officials a year ago.

“The YPG, or the Syrian Kurds, and some Arabs and Turkmen have done tremendous work in northeast Syria,” Austin said. “They have pushed ISIL back from the border. They’re currently somewhere around 40 kilometers (25 miles) or so north of ISIL’s capital city of Raqqa. And they’ll continue to pressure ISIL. So the New Syrian Force is additive to (our) effort.”

At the White House, Earnest made the same point, noting that Syrian Kurdish forces had seized 6,500 square miles of territory from the Islamic State and had recaptured all but 68 miles of the border between Syria and Turkey.

“There already are fighters on the ground inside Syria, some Syrian Arabs, Syrian Kurds and others, who have proved to be effective partners with the United States and our coalition partners in taking the fight to ISIL,” he said.

While most of the hearing focused on Syria, Austin and Wormuth touted the more robust U.S. training program in Iraq.

“We’ve now trained and equipped more than six brigades and provided training to more than 13,000 Iraqi personnel,” Wormuth said. “We have more in the pipeline.”

But senators questioned whether the training was having an impact. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the senior Democrat on the committee, noted in his opening statement that government forces have yet to recapture Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province that the Islamic State seized in May, and efforts to retake Fallujah also have stalled.

An Iraqi military officer at the main operations center in Anbar also said most of the Sunni fighters Wormuth said the U.S. had trained remain sidelined because the U.S. and Iraq have failed to coordinate.

The Iraqi officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, also blamed the United States for the failure to retake Ramadi and Fallujah.

One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that ISIL is losing and that we are winning.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona

“We need more equipment from the Americans and more airstrikes on Daash positions with American planes because the terrorists are located in populated areas that are very hard to hit,” the Iraqi officer told McClatchy, using an Arab acronym for the Islamic State.

Still, Wormuth praised the Iraqi forces. “Early indications are that they are performing well in combat missions, but as you all know, they face a difficult fight ahead, and strong leadership of these forces is going to be essential,” Wormuth said.

Lesley Clark and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero in Irbil, Iraq, contributed.