Austin: Only ‘Four or Five’ US-Trained Rebel Fighters Remain in Syria

Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin III testified Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee that just "four or five" U.S.-trained rebel fighters remain in Syria to try to combat the Islamic State.

This followed Defense Secretary Ash Carter's report in July that the United States had only trained 60 rebel fighters as of July 3, admitting to the committee at the time "that's an awfully small number." Fox News reported at the time that the Obama administration hoped to train 3,000 rebels by the end of the year. Sen. Deb Fischer (R., Neb.) asked Austin to update the committee on the new amount.

"It's a small number, and the ones that are in the fight is—we're talking four or five," he said.

Fischer next cited a Sept. 6 report from the New York Times about a new Pentagon strategy acknowledging "severe shortcomings" in its efforts to train and equip a moderate group of rebels to fight IS:

The proposed changes come after a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda attacked, in late July, many of the first 54 Syrian graduates of the military’s training program and the rebel unit they came from. A day before the attack, two leaders of the American-backed group and several of its fighters were captured.

The encounter revealed several glaring deficiencies in the program, according to classified assessments: The rebels were ill-prepared for an enemy attack and were sent back into Syria in too small numbers. They had no local support from the population and had poor intelligence about their foes. They returned to Syria during the Eid holiday, and many were allowed to go on leave to visit relatives, some in refugee camps in Turkey — and these movements likely tipped off adversaries to their mission. Others could not return because border crossings were closed.

The classified options now circulating at senior levels of the Pentagon include enlarging the size of the groups of trained rebels sent back into Syria, shifting the location of the deployments to ensure local support, and improving intelligence provided to the fighters. No decisions have been made on specific proposals, according to four senior Defense Department and Obama administration officials briefed on the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential planning.

Fischer asked Austin whether he agreed that fighters should be returned to Syria in far larger numbers.

"I agree with that, senator," Austin said. "Whenever that's possible, it is in our best interest to make sure that we have an element that can protect itself and also can go in and combine efforts with other elements that are on the ground."

Full exchange:

SEN. FISCHER: General Austin, when [Secretary] Carter was here before this committee in July, he testified that there were only about 60 Syrian fighters that had been trained in our ‘train-and-equip' program and reinserted. We've heard reports about the attacks on those individuals when they were reinserted back into Syria. Can you tell us what the total number of trained fighters remains?

GEN. AUSTIN: It's a small number, and the ones that are in the fight is — we're talking four or five.

FISCHER: A New York Times report on September 6 indicated that among the lessons learned from that experience was that these fighters should be returned to Syria in larger numbers than the 60, obviously larger than the four or five that are there. Do you agree with that?

AUSTIN: I agree with that, Senator. Whenever that's possible, it is in our best interest to make sure that we have an element that can protect itself and also can go in and combine efforts with other elements that are on the ground.