WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Only four or five U.S.-trained Syrian rebels are still fighting in Syria, a top U.S. general told Congress on Wednesday, a stark admission of setbacks to a fledgling military program that critics have already pronounced a failure.
The U.S. military began training in May for up to 5,400 fighters a year, in what was seen as a test of President Barack Obama’s strategy of having local partners combat Islamic State militants and keep U.S. troops off the front lines.
But the program was troubled from the start, with some of the first class of less than 60 fighters coming under attack from al Qaeda’s Syria wing, Nusra Front, in their battlefield debut. Some were captured and killed while others scattered.
U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that a review is underway that could result in scaling back and reenvisioning the program.
U.S. General Lloyd Austin, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that at the current, slower-than-expected pace, the initial training targets were unrealistic.
Asked how many fighters were still in Syria, Austin said: “It’s a small number. The ones that are in the fight ... we’re talking four or five.”
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth told the committee that only 100 to 120 Syrian fighters were in training.
Wormuth said the Pentagon was considering options that include scaling back the program’s goals to insert small numbers U.S.-trained rebels with larger units in northern Syria. That contrasts with previous goals of creating individual units.
“We are looking at that option as well as others,” Wormuth told the committee.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the option cited might significantly reduce the size of the program, creating an “enabling” force that could, for example, help call in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
Wormuth said the current crop of U.S.-trained fighters could help enable other Western-aligned groups in Syria, but she also acknowledged disappointment, saying: “The program is much smaller than we’d hope. Yes, we’re not bragging.”
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the fact that so few U.S.-trained fighters were deployed “certainly raises legitimate questions about what kinds of changes need to be made to this program.”
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, said: “We have to acknowledge that this is a total failure. It’s just a failure.”
Obama’s critics have seized on the program as evidence of a deeply troubled strategy in Syria, where a 4-1/2-year civil war has killed about 250,000 people and caused nearly half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million to flee, with many thousands attempting to reach Europe.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John McCain, roundly condemned Obama’s campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
“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.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Grant McCool and David Gregorio