The Pentagon is overhauling its plan to train and equip a fighting force of moderate Syrian rebels against ISIS after many of the program's first 54 graduates were attacked and a number of its fighters captured in late July, according to a published report.
The New York Times, citing four Defense Department and Obama administration officials briefed on the issue, reported late Sunday that the Pentagon is now considering several changes aimed at improving the program's effectiveness. Those proposals include enlarging the size of the groups sent into Syria, dropping them in places where they have local support, and improving the intelligence the fighters are given.
The $500 million train-and-equip initiative, run by U.S. Special Forces in Turkey, was announced by President Obama in June of last year. However, the program didn't actually begin until May of this year.
The initiative, together with a parallel effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, is the key piece of the U.S. strategy to create ground forces capable of fighting ISIS without involving U.S. ground combat troops. The aim of the Syrian program was to enable participants to defend their own towns against the onslaught of ISIS fighters without also battling the forces of Bashar al-Assad.
Many would-be volunteers for the program were rejected out of hand due to extremist affiliations or physical issues. In late June, the Associated Press reported that of approximately 6,000 volunteers, about 1,500 have passed muster and await movement to training camps in other countries. In the same report, the AP said that fewer than 100 people had actually taken part in the training.
The 54 who were deployed in July were supplied by the Syrian opposition group Division 30. The Times, citing a Syrian Army defector who joined the rebels early in Syria's long-running civil war, reported that around a dozen of the 54 were detained by the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front when they returned to Syria to visit their families. Eight others, including two of the group's commanders, were captured after they tried to meet with Nusra Front leaders and inform them that the trainees were only interested in fighting ISIS.
They next day, the Nusra Front attacked Division 30's base in northwestern Syria. An unknown number of trainees were killed and injured, and the battle only ended when an American drone struck the attacking fighters.
"The Americans made the mistake," the defector said. "You can’t send in a group that small into Syria."
The Times reports that the program's initial goal of training and equipping 5,000 fighters in its first year is now unrealistic to even its greatest supporters. The Obama administration has ruled out sending US advisers into Syria alongside the next class of trainees.