Republican senators warned on Thursday that the Obama administration’s program to train rebels in Syria was inadequate and would likely fail to defeat the Islamic State.
The Defense Department is preparing to deploy several hundred U.S. troops to the region to begin training the Syrian rebels, with the goal of equipping about 5,000 fighters per year. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who attended a closed hearing about the program on Thursday said they were not impressed with the effort.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) told reporters, "this strategy makes Pickett’s Charge look well thought out."
"We’re about to train people for certain death," he said. "If I were Assad I’d take the first recruits we send and kill them in the cradle. This is the infancy—these are infants coming out of the Free Syrian Army. If they meet a certain fate, it’s going to be hard to recruit."
The recruits will also be advised to focus on combating the Islamic State terrorist group rather than Assad’s troops, a strategy that Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the new chairman of the committee, called the "most ridiculous thing."
More than 200,000 people have died during the civil war between Assad and the rebel insurgency. Lawmakers previously criticized the administration for only providing meager support to the rebels and allowing groups such as the Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to gain a foothold in the country.
The Islamic State now controls at least one-third of Syria despite almost 800 airstrikes by the United States, the Daily Beast reported last week. Free Syrian Army officials have said lethal support from a clandestine CIA program has been cut off as resources are redirected to the Pentagon’s train-and-equip strategy.
It remains unclear how the small group of U.S.-trained rebels would attack the Islamic State, which is estimated to have about 30,000 fighters in Syria. U.S. officials have prioritized pushing back the terrorist group in Iraq first, but the fighters continue to operate there while retaining their ability move back and forth between Iraq and Syria. Republican lawmakers have also condemned an apparent shift in U.S. policy that would allow Assad to remain in power in a post-war settlement, a scenario that President Obama and others previously said was untenable.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) raised concerns about Iran’s influence in Syria and Obama’s vow to veto legislation that would re-impose sanctions on Tehran if it failed to reach an agreement with the West on its nuclear program. He noted that recent reports of an Israeli strike on a top-level Iranian commander in Syria provided more evidence of Tehran’s extensive backing of Assad. In Yemen, Houthi rebels who receive military assistance from Iran seized the palace of the country’s U.S.-allied leader this week.
"If that’s the kind of cooperation we’re getting because of our forbearance on [Iranian] sanctions, then I’m not sure we want more of it," Cotton said at a Real Clear Politics (RCP) event.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), a newly elected member on the committee, told the Washington Free Beacon after the RCPevent that lawmakers are still evaluating the U.S. program to train the Syrian rebels and how to support them after the initial deployment. European officials have grappled with a spate of terrorist threats and attacks in recent weeks that have been linked to the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other groups in Syria and across the region.
"We got a lot of work to do, but we don’t have much time to do it," he said.