WASHINGTON, D.C. — Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers that, as of July 3, the United States was in the process of training 60 Syrian rebel fighters to fight the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), far short of the stated Obama administration goal to train and equip thousands of rebels annually.
Carter admitted that 60 is not an impressive number.
“As of July 3, we are currently training about 60 fighters,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “This number is much smaller than we’d hoped for at this point.”
In announcing the start of the $500 million program to train and equip vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels, Carter told Pentagon reporters in May that 90 Syrian trainees were participating in the effort at the time.
Only about two months since Carter made that announcement, the number of Syrian trainees has already dropped to about 60 due to attrition, according to a Pentagon spokesperson.
“Like Secretary Carter said yesterday, about 60 Syrian fighters is correct,” the spokesperson told Breitbart News. “Without getting into specific numbers, I can confirm that we have had a number of trainees who have either quit or been removed from the program. As with any basic military training program, the train and equip program has experienced attrition and for several reasons: everything from volunteers showing up without ID papers to being underage, to being unfit for training.”
“We are focused more on quality than quantity. Seasonal factors contribute to the willingness of young men in the Middle East to participate in a particular program. This is the time of Ramadan, which plays a significant role in the program’s current state,” he continued. “With this in mind, we still will not take any shortcuts with respect to vetting.”
The goal of the half billion dollar program to train and equip so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, which reportedly began in May, is to train about 5,400 annually for three years. Officials recently said they hope to train 3,000 by the end of 2015.
During Tuesday’s Senate panel hearing, Carter did note that the U.S. is “working to screen and vet almost 7,000 volunteers to ensure that they’re committed to fighting ISIL, pass a counter-intelligence screening, and meet standards prescribed by U.S. law regarding the law of armed conflict and necessitated by operations.”
He said the stringent vetting process is the reason why the current number of Syrian rebels being trained is so small.
“The vetting process is deliberate and in-depth, continuing even after volunteers report for training,” the Pentagon spokesperson told Breitbart News. “This process has to be thorough as it’s imperative we train the correct individuals in order for this mission to be successful.”
Carter explained that the U.S. has to ensure that the trainees have not committed atrocities, are not affiliated with ISIS or any other jihadist group, and will not attack U.S. trainers.
“I said the number 60, and I can look out at your faces and you have the same reaction I do, which is that that’s an awfully small number,” he told lawmakers.
“I expect that number to improve but you deserve to know the truth,” he added.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the training program, saying he was not impressed by where it currently stands, noting that the Obama administration has failed to make solid commitments to the recruits.
Carter, rousing the ire of Sen. McCain, emphasized on Tuesday that the trained Syrian rebels will not be fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. All rebels are considered enemies by the Assad government.
“We are telling them that we are arming and training them in the first instance to go after ISIL and not the Assad regime. That’s our priority,” said the defense secretary.
When McCain asked whether or not the U.S. would defend the trainees if they come under attack by the Assad regime, Carter indicated that the Obama administration has not decided what sort of assistance it would provide in such a situation.
“That’s of small comfort to those people you’re recruiting right now, that that decision will be made later on,” said McCain.