Pentagon Asks for $500M to Train Syrian Rebels

Syrian rebels with tank.

Top Pentagon officials argued Wednesday for $500 million to train moderate Syrian rebels along with $53.4 billion in Afghan war funding at a Congressional hearing.

The Pentagon has put together a plan to train a force of about 2,300 moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting the pro-Assad and Al Qaeda connected militias in the Syrian civil war, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

U.S. military leaders have not chosen the fighters who will take part in the training program that will also include the supply of military equipment, according to the Journal's report.

The Syrian training funding was part of an overall Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request of $58.6 sent to Congress that also included nearly $1 billion to bolster U.S. forces in Europe, and $5 billion for counter-terrorism partnership programs with allies.

At the House Armed Services Committee hearing, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work noted that the Afghans have yet to approve a U.S. presence past the end of this year but he rejected comparisons to Iraq.

"We say right now absolutely not," Work said. "[Iraq] asked us to leave. Period, end of story."

"[The Afghanistan government] wants U.S. forces to stay in the country," Work said.

Secretary of State John Kerry spent last weekend in Kabul trying to broker a deal between candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over the disputed results of a runoff for president, but the two sides immediately argued over who would conduct an audit of the results.

In his testimony, Adm. James "Sandy" Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that both candidates have agreed to sign a new Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. for the continued presence of U.S. troops past 2014, but the decision on a presidential winner had to come quickly.

"If it goes much beyond September," the U.S. would have difficulty in completing the planned withdrawal of combat forces by the end of this year and enacting the plan to have about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year in training and advisory roles.

Without a new BSA, the U.S. troop presence would end, Winnefeld said.

"We'll have to be out of there if we don't have a BSA," he said.

The OCO budget, sometimes called the supplemental budget, is in addition to the base budget of $496 billion submitted by the Defense Department for 2015.

The Obama administration in 2009 began using the term "Overseas Contingency Operations" to replace the term "Global War on Terror" that was used by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

In a testy exchange with Winnefeld, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, said the Pentagon has to do a better job of explaining how the proposed $500 million for "moderate" Syrian rebels would be spent or "there ain't no way we're going to pass it."

"It makes perfect sense to me that we need to back these people," Smith said of the Syrian opposition, but the White House has failed to make a detailed case for the investment. "They've got to frickin' push the policy," Smith said.

Winnefeld said that the Defense Department had a detailed but classified plan for "vetting" moderates in the Syrian opposition who would be trained and equipped in a third country he would not name. They would have the dual mission of combating elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Winnefeld said.

Work said that the Fiscal Year 2015 OCO budget request of $58.6 billion was $26.7 billion less than the $85.3 billion enacted by Congress for OCO in 2014. The request was also $100 billion less than the $159 billion OCO request from four years ago.

Work said the current OCO request "reflects a continued downward trajectory" in the OCO budget following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but several committee members questioned whether OCO has become a fallback fund for items and projects not included in the $496 billion base budget submitted by the Defense Department in March.

"This has become yet another slush fund" for pet projects, said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. Under Secretary of Defense Michael McCord, the new Pentagon comptroller, responded that the transfer of OCO funds to other projects only comes about after requests are submitted to Congress.

Work argued for a new OCO request of $1 billion for a European Re-Assurance Initiative (ERI) to bolster U.S. forces in Europe to counter Russian aggression. About $925 million of the ERI money would be for DoD and the rest for the State Department, Work said.

Winnefeld said the money would fund more frequent forward deployments, more frequent exercises with allies, more deployments of warships to the Black Sea and more air policing over the Baltic states.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, questioned whether the emphasis on Europe would detract from the planned rebalance of forces to the Pacific.

"If you're an ally in the Asia-Pacific, how do you read all this?" Forbes asked.

Work responded that the Defense Department's base budget was still "very, very forward on Asia," and he added that the $1 billion for Europe was temporary spending.

Last month, Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of Defense for International Security, said at an Atlantic Council event that the ERI was one-year's worth of funding.

"This is not going to be $1 billion for all of eternity," Chollet said. "This is just a one-time ask. It's a contingency fund."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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