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Syrian Rebel Training Program Costs Millions and Counting


The U.S. military has spent well in excess of $41 million on the program to train and equip Syrian rebels to combat Islamic State militants that has yet to maintain a single fighter on the ground in Syria.

In a statement Tuesday night, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that through May 30 the Defense Department had "spent $41.8 million to fund the training and equipping of the vetted Syrian opposition." He said the Pentagon comptroller was working to get more updated numbers on the costs of the program.

Congress authorized $500 million last year for the train and equip program that was intended to put more than 3,000 "moderate" opposition fighters in Syria by the end of the year. In July, the first group of 54 fighters entered Syria from Turkey but they were attacked by the al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front and quickly returned to Turkey.

Cook said that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan have all agreed to host training areas for the rebels but to date training has only been conducted in Turkey and Jordan.

Cook said that a second and a third class of recruits were currently in training and "we are working on vetting additional cohorts beyond that." He declined to give numbers on how many trainees were involved or where they were being readied for combat. The U.S. has said they would only target militants affiliated with the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The struggling efforts of the U.S. to establish a ground force in Syria came amid new tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia's support for the Assad regime that now includes military advisers working in concert with Assad’s forces.

Maria V. Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, confirmed that Russian advisers were in Syria to train the Syrian government forces on using the new arms shipped from Moscow.

"Russian military specialists help Syrians master Russian hardware, and we can’t understand the anti-Russian hysteria about this," Zakharova told the New York Times.

"We have been supplying Syria with arms and military equipment for a long time," Zakharova said. "We are doing this in accordance with existing contracts and in full accordance with international law."

The admission by Moscow came after numerous reports of Russia's movement of arms into Syria by ship and by air. The Russians reportedly are also building a barracks for its troops in the northern Syrian city of Latakia.

The arms shipments mainly come from Moscow's state-run Rosobornexport firm. The same firm supplied Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan National Security Forces in a controversial deal financed by the U.S.

At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby said that Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, "to re-iterate our concern about these reports of Russian military activity (in Syria) or a buildup if you will."

Kirby said Kerry told Lavrov that Russia's actions were "unhelpful" in seeking a political solution to Syria's nearly five-year-old civil war.

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