US Restarts Effort to Train Syrian Rebels, This Time on Smaller Scale

Syrian rebels with tank.

The U.S. has launched a new and much more modest effort to train "dozens" of Syrian rebels following the collapse last year of the ambitious $500 million program intended to put about 5,000 opposition fighters into the field against ISIS, a U.S. military spokesman said.

Army Col. Steve Warren said the new attempt was taking into account "lessons learned from the ill-fated program of 2015" when rebels trained and equipped by U.S. Central Command either disbanded or fled when attacked by other rebel groups such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front.

In an embarrassing appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who stepped down last week as CentCom commander, had to admit that the entire train and equip program had put only "four or five" fighters in the field.

Rather than bringing entire rebel units out of the field for training and equipping, the new program was focusing on taking individuals from units and training them in such skills as targeting and coordinating airstrikes with the thought that they could then pass along those skills to others, said Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

The ability to coordinate with U.S. and coalition warplanes "allows us to bring significantly more fires into play in any of these skirmishes, battles, and firefights that are taking place throughout Syria," he said in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.

Warren acknowledged that the previous train and equip program "didn't work the way we wanted it to. Now we are trying again with adjustments." He declined to say where the training was taking place. A "few dozen" rebels had been selected for the training but none has returned to the battlefield as yet, he said.

Early last month, Austin disclosed that the Defense Department had asked President Barack Obama to approve the new. "I've asked for permission to restart the effort by using a different approach," the general told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"The training would be shorter. But again, I think they would be able to greatly enable the forces once they're re-introduced," Austin said.

The new training effort was part of what Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has called the "accelerated" plan to back local forces in retaking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's strongholds of Raqqa in northeastern Syria, and Mosul in northwestern Iraq.

To support the Mosul campaign, the artillery unit of about 200 Marines and four 155mm howitzers that was deployed last month to Makhmour about 60 miles southeast of Mosul was being detached from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and would now be part of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, Warren said.

The Marine artillery unit will stay in place at their new fire base in Makhmour as Task Force Spartan in support of the Iraqi Army's 15th Division when the 26th MEU returns to the East Coast, possibly later this month, with the Amphibious Ready Group led by the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, Warren said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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