The Pentagon will revise its struggling program to train large groups of moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS and instead focus on equipping and enabling existing rebel groups who have been vetted by the United States, officials said.
The struggling training program had been projected to train as many as 5,400 moderate Syrian rebel fighters during its first 12 months. But rigorous vetting standards significantly slowed the flow of recruits. After six months, only 125 rebels from two training classes had completed the training in various countries and returned to Syria where they were targeted by Islamic opposition groups.
An additional 120 rebels have continued receiving training even though the flow of new recruits ended a few weeks ago.
"We are not abandoning it; it still exists,” a Defense Department official, who asked not to be named, told ABC News of the program. “We are going to redirect it out of existing authorities and funds.”
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said, “Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is now directing the Department of Defense to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL,” the government acronym used to describe ISIS.
Speaking in London today, Carter said the adjustments to the program were intended to improve it.
“We have been looking now for several weeks at ways to improve that program,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the early efforts in that regard, so we are looking to achieve basically the same kind of strategic objective, which is the right one, which is to enable capable forces on the ground to retake territory from ISIL and retake territory from extremism.”
Christine Wormuth, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, told reporters that the revamped program would be streamlined by rigorously vetting the leaders of existing rebel groups and building on coalition relationships that already exist with Kurdish, Christian and Arab rebel groups in northeastern Syria and expand from there.
A defense official told ABC News that vetted groups will initially receive ammunition and that additional equipment and weapons will be provided to them over time as a group proves its reliability.
Additionally, small numbers of leaders from these groups will receive training on human rights and how to communicate with the coalition to pass along information that could be used for airstrikes.
U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Lloyd Austin revealed how much the program had been struggling when he told Congress last month that at the time only “four or five” rebels from the first graduating class of 54 rebels were still fighting ISIS, though officials have more recently cited 80 or 90 rebel fighters, when factoring in the second class of 71 trainees and others who have since joined.
"We are going to enable existing forces to fight ISIL doing essentially what they have been doing without our help, but by enabling them they will be able to do it further," the Defense official said.
In a conference call with reporters today, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, described the change to the training program as “a pause” because it could be re-established in the future.
“Today's announcement represents an ongoing process where we aim to learn from what works in our strategy and aim to make corrections where we see things that are not working,” Rhodes said.
Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, spoke about a contradiction raised by the previous program when it came to groups that have been successfully fighting ISIS east of Aleppo.
”The question begs itself is it best to take those guys out and put them through training programs for many weeks or to keep them on the line fighting and to give them additional enablers and support them," he said. "I think the right answer is the latter and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”