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US struggling to train moderate Syrian rebels

Fewer than 200 sign up for anti-Islamic State training program in Jordan, Turkey; US seeks 5,000

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter appears before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, June 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter appears before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, June 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The US is struggling to implement its training program for moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group, according to figures released Thursday by the Pentagon.

Only “100 to 200” fighters have actively begun training at US sites in Jordan and Turkey, according to Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, of the 5,000 forces the military says it wants to train over the year.

The Obama administration embarked on the program earlier this year under strong pressure from Congress, which allocated $500 million to finance it.

“This is a very difficult operation to undertake,” Warren said.

Slow-downs have occurred in the vetting of trainees. Some 6,000 Syrians have volunteered for training, and 1,500 passed the first stage of selection.

Pentagon Chief Ashton Carter told a congressional committee Wednesday that it is difficult to find fighters that are both moderate and willing to take on the IS group as their primary foe.

“It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria,” Carter said.

Besides difficulties of implementation, the training program is also going up against strategic differences between Washington and regional partners such as Turkey.

Ankara has claimed Washington’s singular focus on the IS group weakens the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The US is experiencing a similar training shortage in Iraq, where Carter said yesterday that Baghdad hasn’t sent nearly enough forces to US training facilities to help prepare its forces and retake areas held by IS jihadists.

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