Obama administration officials announced on Friday that the $500 million program training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels will end, recognizing that the program has yet to produce successful ground forces to combat Islamic State militants.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that instead of continuing the current Syria Train and Equip program, the U.S. will seek to work more closely with capable Kurdish groups, which he called a “more strategic approach.”
“The work we’ve done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach,” Carter said. “That’s exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward.”
The Associated Press noted that the first group of the program’s trainees “largely disbanded soon after they were sent into combat; some were captured or killed, while others fled,” and the second class “yielded only a small number of new fighters, drawing criticism from U.S. lawmakers who condemned the program as a joke and a failure.”
An anonymous senior Defense Department official told the New York Times that the U.S. would stop recruiting “moderate rebels” from Syria to undergo training programs in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, and would set up a training center in Turkey, where leaders of opposition groups would be taught “operational maneuvers like how to call in airstrikes.”
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) sent a letter to the Obama administration last week calling for an end to the program, on the basis that it is a “failed initiative” that needs to be stopped before causing “additional harm” to the Syrian people.
“The Syria Train and Equip Program goes beyond simply being an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars,” the senators wrote. “As many of us initially warned, it is now aiding the very forces we aim to defeat.”
After months of losing both fighters and equipment to Islamic State militants, the U.S. government has said it is now investigating how the group obtained hundreds of Toyota pickup trucks, which have been featured in ISIS propaganda videos.