After spending millions of dollars over the last nine months to churn out only 54 recruits, the Defense Department on Tuesday conceded it is looking at ways to revamp the faltering effort to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to take on ISIS.
“Hard questions are being asked about this program,” and how to make it more effective, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said during a press briefing. “We have lessons from that, continue to learn lessons from that and we are going to continue moving forward with that program.”
Officials hoped to train more than 5,000 fighters annually, a goal many viewed with skepticism given the shifting allegiances that dominate the region and the strenuous vetting process applicants must undergo.
The idea behind the program was for moderate rebels to serve as the ground forces against ISIS fighters in Syria, so the U.S. from having to commit boots on the ground, a major redline for President Obama.
In July, Defense Secretary Ash Carter stunned Washington, and many U.S. allies that make up the anti-ISIS coalition, when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the effort had only turned out 60 graduates who could battle the terrorist group.
The program “did not launch in the way in which we would have liked,” Cook said Tuesday, but the Pentagon chief “still believes it's important to provide support to those moderate Syrian forces.”
The first class trained by the U.S. also failed to live up to expectations in the field. Two of its leaders and several fighters were captured shortly after crossing from Turkey into Syria in July by the Al Nusra Front (ANF), a Syrian rebel group affiliated with al Qaeda. The rest of the U.S.-backed fighters were later returned to Turkey.
Cook admitted DOD has trouble keeping track of where its handful of trainees have gone and what they’re up to.
"We have concerns about the disposition of all these individuals, all these trainees," he said. "I can't say with specificity where they have each ended up from this podium."
Cook also couldn’t say how much of the allocated $500 million had been spent on the training program to date or how much a potential overhaul might cost.
He said trainees in the second class “are still going through” the roughly six to seven week course and that there is a third cohort but didn’t say where their progress stood.