The United States was only training about 60 Syrian opposition fighters to battle Islamic State as of July 3, far below expectations, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress on Tuesday, citing rigorous U.S. vetting of recruits.
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The program, which launched in May in Jordan and Turkey, was designed to train as many as 5,400 fighters a year and seen as a test of President Barack Obama's strategy of engaging local partners to combat extremists.
Carter's acknowledgement of the low number of recruits will give ammunition to critics who say Obama's strategy is too limited to have any influence on Syria's brutal civil war.
"Given the poor numbers of recruited and trained Syrian fighters thus far, I am doubtful we can achieve our goal of training a few thousand this year," said Republican Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Some Syrian rebel leaders say the force the United States is training risks sowing divisions and cannot succeed without directly targeting Syrian government forces, who are currently off-limits for U.S. offensive operations.
The top Democrat on the committee, Senator Jack Reed, said Islamic State "remains the dominant force in western Syria."
"Absent a moderate opposition that is willing to and capable of taking territory from ISIL and holding it, any change in the status quo is unlikely," he said, using an acronym for the group.
Obama was briefed by his top military commanders at the Pentagon on Monday. He said at a news conference later that "we will do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria" but did not offer details.
Carter told Congress the number of recruits would increase as the United States learned how to better streamline vetting.
"We are also refining our curriculum, expanding our outreach to the moderate opposition, and incorporating lessons learned from the first training class," Carter said.
Obama has yet to announce whether he will go beyond resupplying and financing the proxy force, and protect them with U.S. fighter jets if they clash with Assad's forces. The United States is already conducting near daily air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
Carter said he believed the Syrian recruits needed some U.S. protection but said no decisions had been made on what assistance to provide.
On Monday, President Barack Obama pledged to increase U.S. support for the moderate opposition in Syria's civil war and said the United States needed to do more at home to prevent attacks and combatIslamic State efforts to recruit followers.
Obama, speaking at the Pentagon, said the United States would continue to crack down on Islamic State's illicit finance operations around the world.
There are no current plans to send additional U.S. troops overseas, he said, repeating that the fight against the militant group would not be quick.