US axes programme training new force of Syrian rebels
The US is abandoning its goal of training a new force of moderate Syrian rebels and will focus on equipping, arming and supporting established groups already fighting Islamic State inside Syria, officials said.
The change reflects the failure of the current approach, which has produced only a handful of combat-ready moderate rebels and drawn widespread criticism in Congress.
Officials said the new approach would focus heavily on equipping and enabling established Kurdish and Arab rebel groups rather than recruiting and vetting a new cadre of moderate rebels, training them at camps in Turkey and Jordan and re-inserting them as an infantry force into Syria.
The 500 million dollars (£325 million) Congress provided last year for the programme will be used more for equipping select rebel groups inside Syria, with limited training activity.
The CIA runs a separate, covert programme that began in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Syrian president Bashar Assad. US officials say that effort is having more success with its goals than the one run by the military, which only trained militants willing to promise to take on IS exclusively.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the new approach is aimed at improving US support for partners on the ground in Syria. He did not spell out details but said defence secretary Ash Carter had directed that "equipment packages and weapons" be provided to "a select group of vetted leaders and their units".
The aim, Mr Cook said, is to work with these unspecified units "so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by Isil", using an acronym for Islamic State.
Under the new approach, the US would provide small arms and ammunition, as well as communications gear and limited training of rebel leaders, to enable established rebel groups to co-ordinate US air strikes in support of their ground operation, the officials said.
The overhaul keeps the effort in line with the administration's basic formula of leveraging US air power to enhance the efforts of Syrian rebels on the ground. The US has already had some success working, for example, with Syrian Arab rebel groups.
Mr Cook said the new focus on equipping and enabling rebels, rather than building a new rebel force, will allow the US to "reinforce the progress already made" in countering IS.
The original programme was beset with a series of embarrassing setbacks. The first group of trainees largely disbanded soon after they were sent into combat; some were captured or killed, while others fled. A second class yielded only a small number of new fighters, drawing criticism from US policymakers who condemned the programme as a joke and a failure.
US officials have said the new effort would focus more on embedding recruits with established Kurdish and Arab units, rather than sending them directly into frontline combat.
"The work we've done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach," Mr Carter said. "That's exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria."