Washington to overhaul its failed training program for Syrian rebels

The Obama administration is going to overhaul its $500 million training program for so called “moderate” Syrian rebels. The move is seen as an acknowledgement that it has failed to create a new combat force capable of fighting Islamic State on the ground.

There is a pause being put in place, while we focus more on the equipping side of those groups that are in Syria now and have proven competent against ISIL [Islamic State, formerly ISIS/ISIL],” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told RT’s Gayane Chichakyan at a Friday briefing. Part of the program is being temporarily “shelved,” he added without giving specifics, saying the Pentagon is in charge.

Sometimes you run into obstacles and challenges you didn’t know you were going to have or you couldn’t have predicted,” Kirby said. “I would also remind you that this particular aspect of the program is not being shelved forever.”

When asked about why the program hadn’t worked, Kirby said to ask the Defense Department.

“From this podium I am telling you that it’s a great question that you should pose to the Defense department. I think they’ve been very candid and frank over the last couple of months in particular about the challenges they have faced in terms of recruiting fighters for the program.”

During a Friday news conference in London, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Washington had been “looking for several weeks at ways to improve” the program.

READ MORE: ‘Who are Syrian moderates & where are they?’

He added that he "wasn't satisfied with the early efforts" of the program, and that Washington is looking for "different ways to achieve the same kind of strategic objective."

"I think you'll be hearing very shortly from [President Obama] in that regard about the proposals that he has approved and that we are going to go forward with," Carter said following a meeting with his British counterpart Michael Fallon.

Meanwhile, a Pentagon official told The New York Times that the recruitment of so-called moderate Syrian rebels to go through training programs in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates will end.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that a much smaller training center will be opened in Turkey, where a small number of “enablers” – mostly leaders of opposition groups – will be taught operational maneuvers, such as how to call in airstrikes.


Speaking to RT, political analyst Dan Glazebrook said "it was obvious that something was going to have to change...my opinion has always been that this whole business about funding moderate rebels has always been a bit of a fantasy, for a number of reasons."

"There's nothing moderate about what they're being trained to do. There's nothing moderate about forming a militia and then going and killing as many police and soldiers of a sovereign state as you can. And that's assuming the best case scenario that they're only attacking police and soldiers..."

He added that it's "no great surprise that Russia has achieved more in a week of airstrikes than a 62-power coalition has achieved in a year against ISIS." 

A top US General told Congress in September that only “four or five” US-trained rebels were still fighting on the ground, with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ga.) calling the program a “total failure.”  

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at the time that the small number "certainly raises legitimate questions about what kinds of changes need to be made to this program."

Senator John McCain has been a vocal critic of Obama's campaign against ISIS in Syria. 

"One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that [Islamic State] is losing and that we are winning. And if you're not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing," McCain said in September.

It comes just one day after reports of a funding bill which earmarks $600 million to support “appropriately vetted” Syrian rebels fighting against both ISIS and the Assad government. 

The $500 million training program has experienced multiple setbacks. The first group of trainees disbanded soon after being sent into combat, with some captured or killed and others fleeing. A second class of troops introduced only a small number of new fighters. The original plan, devised in December 2014, aimed to prepare as many as 5,400 fighters this year, and 15,000 over the next three years.