Only 60 Syrian fighters being trained: US defense leader

Only 60 Syrian fighters being trained: US defense leader

U.S. defense leaders on Tuesday were grilled by Republican senators about the Obama administration's anti-Daesh strategy at a Senate committee hearing Anadolu Agency reported

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, testifying alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers that only 60 Syrian fighters are being trained while approximately 7,000 Syrian volunteers are currently being vetted.

"This number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards," he said, noting that Syrian volunteers should be committed to fighting Daesh and pass a counterintelligence screening for possible connections to terror groups.

Sen. John McCain, who chairs the committee, lashed out at the administration, calling the train and equip program "anemic and struggling" because the stated goal for the program does not include fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends. That suggests we are not winning, and when you're not winning in war, you are losing," he added.

Pressed by McCain after a few evasions, Carter said the administration has not decided nor conveyed to volunteers whether the U.S. would protect them against regime airstrikes.

The fight against the militants is a long-term effort with setbacks, and as such the defense leaders did not lay out a strategy for a post-Assad scenario in Syria.

Dempsey told lawmakers that the U.S. has been consulting with the partners in the region such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel about how to handle a possible sudden fall of Assad, but President Barack Obama does not want a sudden collapse of the Syrian regime as it may cause a bigger chaos.

"We are trying to influence those who influence him [Assad], to remove himself from the government of Damascus, while keeping intact the structures of governance," he said. "We don't want to see the structures of governance go at the same time. And that is the challenge."

He also said he couldn't predict whether Assad would leave or be removed from power before Obama hands over the White House to a new president in January 2017.

Although the fight against Daesh in Iraq is not much better than that the one in Syria, the numbers of trained Iraqi forces is relatively higher.

Carter said 350 of 450 additional U.S. troops have already been deployed to the al-Taqaddum base in Iraq's Anbar province and the Iraqi government has armed 800 Sunni fighters while training additional fighters at al-Taqaddum.

"Another 500 fighters have already been identified to receive training after the current group," he said.

Currently, there are 3,550 U.S. troops in Iraq at six different locations to train and advise Iraqi forces against Daesh.

Responding to McCain's criticism of airstrike failures against Daesh targets, Carter said 93 percent of bombs being dropped are aimed at static targets but in dynamic strikes, which can include troop movement or other unplanned strikes, he said only about 37 percent of missions drop bombs - a rate he described as better than during the Afghanistan war.

Still, uprooting Daesh and reinstating full control of the Iraqi government in the country does not loom on the horizon, according to the defense leaders.

"I've said that from the beginning that it was probably a three-year effort to restore sovereignty to Iraq, and we're eight months into that," Dempsey said. "Although I said three years for Iraq, it's more like a generation, which I suppose is loosely defined as 20 years, to address the violent extremist allure of ISIL in the Sunni world."

He noted that the U.S. must have a Sunni partner to challenge Daesh.

Carter supported Dempsey's comments saying Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is indeed trying to have a strong Sunni partner on ground is challenged by Shiite political elite in Baghdad.

Asked about a possible partition of Iraq, Carter noted "a substantial autonomy within a decentralized but integral Iraq is still possible", but acknowledged that a Shia state in southern Iraq would bother Sunni partners and an independent Kurdistan would be "very problematic" for Turkey.

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