WASHINGTON — A year after US President Barack Obama asked Congress for the authority to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight the Islamic State group, a senior general has acknowledged the $500 million program is in tatters.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, chief of US Central Command, disclosed that there are no more than five US-trained Syrian fighters left, and acknowledged the program may be overhauled. Austin also confirmed the Pentagon inspector general is investigating his intelligence director amid whistleblower claims that intelligence assessments were altered to show a more positive picture of US progress.
The damaging revelations about the program — which has been straining to recruit nationalist rebels to fight against the Islamic State exclusively, and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — renewed questions about whether it was realistically conceived or should continue.
"Train and equip as conceived by the White House was mission impossible from the beginning," said Frederic Hof, a former senior adviser on Syria for the Obama administration, now with the Atlantic Council. "The formula of recruiting people [nationalist rebels] who had been hammered for four years by the Assad regime to fight exclusively against ISIL was an elegant Washington maneuver totally disconnected from the reality on the ground inside Syria."
At a bombshell Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Sept. 16, Austin was asked how many of the train-and equip-program graduates there were out of an initial group of 60 just three months ago. The program was funded in December and began in May.
"It's a small number," Austin said, "and the ones that are in the fight is four or five."
Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of defense for policy, testified there are "between 100 and 120" additional fighters being trained in Turkey, to which Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., replied, "So we're counting on our fingers and toes at this point."
On Sunday, it was reported that 75 Syrian rebels trained to fight jihadists under a beleaguered US program have crossed from Turkey into northern Syria, a US-backed rebel faction and a monitoring group said Sunday.
"Seventy-five new fighters trained in a camp near the Turkish capital entered Aleppo province between Friday night and Saturday morning," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
"This four or five US-trained Syrian fighters, let's not kid ourselves, that's a joke," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
"We have to acknowledge that this is a total failure," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ariz. "It's just a failure. I wish it weren't so, but that's the fact. It's way past time to react to that failure."
In briefings after the disclosure, the White House backed away from the program. Press secretary Josh Earnest, argued President Obama had been skeptical from the start, though it had been touted by unspecified advocates as "the silver bullet inside of Syria." The Pentagon and policymakers must face up to the difficulty of the endeavor and "make the necessary changes."
"Many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we're facing in Syria right now," Earnest said. "That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for."
Earnest credited Austin's honesty in the hearing, as did Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, who said Defense Secretary Ash Carter has "full confidence" in the general.
"One of the things that the secretary most admires about Gen. Austin is his candor and his forthrightness," Cook said. "I think you saw some of that on display yesterday up on Capitol Hill, his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee."
Austin sidestepped comments made earlier this month from outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey that the fight against the Islamic State group has become a stalemate, noting that "setbacks are to be expected in the early stages of the fight. Fortunately, amidst the many challenges that exist in Iraq and Syria, we find opportunities, and we remain confident that our actions in pursuit of these opportunities will continue to produce positive results in the coming days."
To McCain, the predictions of a years-long fight with incremental progress made the upbeat appraisal appear delusional.
"So, basically, general, what you're telling us is that everything's fine as we see hundreds of thousands of refugees leave and flood Europe, as we're seeing now 250,000 Syrians slaughtered," McCain said. "I have never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality."
With his assessment, Austin also pre-emptively acknowledged the Defense Department Inspector General's investigation into the "processing of intelligence information" within his command.
McCain said his committee will conduct its own investigation into the claims, which threaten to undermine the Pentagon's credibility and public support for the military mission.
Austin insisted he had not interfered with intelligence to create a more positive picture of US efforts in the region, and said he expects "candid and accurate intelligence assessments from my staff."
The Syrian train-and-equip program's troubles were not new to the committee. In his own Capitol Hill testimony July 7, Carter acknowledged the program was struggling, though Pentagon officials for weeks afterward refused to disclose the extent of its decline, even amid reports of severe setbacks.
Carter at the time said there were 60 fighters, "much smaller than we'd hoped at this point," which he attributed to a stringent screening process, as did Austin and Wormuth in their recent testimony. The 60 were gleaned from several thousand recruits.
The New York Times reported in late July that members of this group — the leader and fighters with the US-trained Division 30 — were abducted near the Turkish border by the Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaida fighting in the four-year-old Syrian civil war.
Officials acknowledged the US, in the wake of the failures, is looking at attaching a small number of Syrian fighters to larger, established forces in northern Syria to ensure the rebels are protected on the battlefield by more numerous experienced troops.
McCaskill, a day after Austin's disclosure, questioned how the military could have spent the $500 million budgeted for the effort and whether it was wise to request $600 million for it next year. She said she would prefer an alternate strategy that boosts the number of fighters fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
One problem, she said, is that working with the US makes Syrian fighters targets or "trophies" for the Islamic State group, who are adept at propaganda and social media.
"We shouldn't play into their strategies," McCaskill said.
Former administration official Hof faulted the overly cautious vetting process for fighters, which seemed most concerned about avoiding the embarrassment of a US-armed fighter crossing over to the other side.
"Had we used such a process to screen members of the French Resistance in World War II we would not have air-dropped or sea-lifted a single rifle," Hof said. "These operations are complex and messy."
Micah Zenko, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, has likened the enterprise to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President John F. Kennedy's abortive paramilitary invasion of Cuba in 1961.
"If it were a top priority of the White House, and that was signaled down the chain of command, issues about screening and restrictions could be overcome quickly," Zenko said.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, said the train-and-equip program was divorced from the ground truth in Syria, that the US has no moderate militants with whom it can work, and that the dominant forces there are either with the Assad regime or al-Qaida-affiliated groups.
"The train and equip is a unicorn, it's mythology, and it's been preserved because it's an important talking point for the administration," Landis said.
In Landis' view, the Obama administration is not committed to destroying the Islamic State, but containing it for the next presidential administration to deal with.
"This was a talking point that got off of paper and into reality, which was a mistake," Landis said.
Leo Shane contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.