Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of CENTCOM and the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said there were only four or five Syrian rebels trained by the U.S. military still in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
General Austin also said the U.S. would not reach its goal of training 5,000 Syrian fighters in the near future. In effect, Austin's testimony before the U.S. Armed Services Committee showed that the Defense Department $500 million program was going nowhere.Republican Senator John McCain, chair of the committee, wanted to know why the U.S. had not set up a no-fly zone over Syria to help protect civilians from being bombed by the Assad government. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said that despite all the talk from US military officials about how well the war was progressing there seemed no recognition of the "practical realities". Intelligence agents have complained that their negative reports on the war against the Islamic State are being altered by superiors.The Defense Department had announced last May that they intended to train up to 5,400 fighters each year in a strategy designed to combine US bombing with proxy local troops on the ground against the Islamic State. The U.S. has been reluctant to send American troops against the Islamic State, although there are no doubt some special forces operating in secret in Syria. The problem for the U.S. is that the rebels are interested primarily in fighting against Assad and not the Islamic State. Many are particularly incensed at the U.S. bombing of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. In some areas the Front is a key player in attacking Assad. The Front has retaliated by successfully attacking U.S.-trained rebels and seizing their weapons.The U.S.-trained rebels called the New Syrian Force(NSF) began with only 54 with all but four or five either having been killed or fleeing, according to General Austin. Present classes in training are about 100 to 120 fighters, nowhere near the over-5,000 target. In spite of the fact that the Pentagon repeatedly praises and promotes the program, General Austin said it was reviewing it.Recent reports indicate the Obama administration is finally planning a major overhaul of its strategy. The new plan will see the U.S.-trained rebels embedded with Kurdish and Arab forces in northeastern Syria. The rebels would be trained to use U.S. communications equipment, enabling them to provide intelligence and designate targets for U.S. bombing. The numbers to be trained are being scaled back to around 500 per year, just one tenth of the original plans.