MAY 7, 2015
U.S. Trains Syrian Rebels in Jordan to Fight ISIS
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
WASHINGTON -- After months of planning and delays, American Special Operations troops have started training a small group of Syrian rebels in Jordan, with the goal of creating a politically moderate force with the fighting prowess to take on the seasoned and well-armed extremists of the Islamic State, senior Pentagon officials said Thursday.
That combination of moderation and ability has so far eluded most of the rebel groups fighting in Syria, where the best armed and organized insurgents are fighting for the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, against the Syrian government. American officials are well aware that it will probably take years to produce a force that can counter the Islamists, and they sought on Thursday to temper expectations for the program.
Only 90 rebels are taking part in the first round of training, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said at a Pentagon news conference, adding that it would be "a few months" before the first trainees were reinserted back into Syria. He also suggested that the program's success was not certain.
"It will need to prove itself," he said. "We're starting with the people that we have that we've vetted carefully. We're figuring out what the best training is, what the initial deployment is."
But, he added, the Pentagon expected the program "to be successful and therefore grow."
Rebels units in a separate effort supported by the C.I.A. have faced ammunition shortages, at least one has been overrun by the Nusra Front -- which managed to grab sophisticated American-provided antitank missiles in the process -- and some have even joined Islamist fighters.
Rebels backed by the C.I.A. have also put their American training to use battling forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a turn that Mr. Carter and other American officials hope the fighters trained by the American military will not take.
"They are being trained and equipped to fight" the Islamic State, Mr. Carter said. American forces will provide air support, surveillance and other assistance if the Pentagon trainees find themselves outgunned by their extremist adversaries, he said.
Mr. Carter sidestepped the thornier question of what, if any, assistance the United States would provide should those rebels find themselves squaring off against forces of the Assad government.
"If they are contested by regime forces, we would have some responsibility to help them," Mr. Carter said. He then added, "We have not yet decided in detail how we would exercise that responsibility."
About 3,700 Syrians have volunteered for the program, said Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the United States Central Command. About 400 recruits have been screened, and another 800 were in the process of being screened.
The first group is being trained in Jordan, and plans for their actual deployment have yet to be decided, Mr. Carter said. Other officials said that additional training sites for future recruits would be in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Once the program is up and running, the American goal is to train about 5,000 fighters a year, a still relatively small number given the thousands of Islamist and government fighters arrayed around Syria.
Also unresolved is "the issue of finding moderate Syrian opposition to establish a political structure to which the military force that we're building can be responsive," Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter was asked whether the Pentagon was concerned about the possibility of a trainee turning on American trainers -- a problem that has plagued the American-led military coalition in Afghanistan.
Vetting "is an important part of the program," he said. "Second, the training takes places in a secure location. And third, of course, our people participating in the training are very experienced."
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon.