- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2016

After a first attempt to train rebel fighters to take on Islamic State militants and the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad ended in an ignominious, expensive failure, the Obama administration is off to another slow start with a revamped train-and-equip program that hopes to develop a class of Sunni Arab battlefield leaders that has produced fewer than 100 graduates since March.

The Pentagon said Monday that it had revealed a 2.0 version of the program to train and equip vetted Syrian militias. U.S. generals told Congress last year that the $350 million program produced “four or five” U.S.-trained fighters before being shut down in October.

The new, roughly $400 million program is geared toward training militia leaders — not entire units — in everything from basic infantry combat skills to more advanced communications and complex counterterrorism operations, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Beginning in December, U.S. special operations advisers in northern Syria and elsewhere have been carrying out a series of small, pilot training programs focused more on establishing contacts among the country’s various warring factions.

Even so, the U.S. officials said fewer than 100 senior militia commanders have passed through the various training programs, while also receiving small arms and ammunition. In some cases, more advanced weaponry and equipment were handed over to certain militia commanders who took part in more advanced training.

A majority of the advanced-level training has taken place outside of Syria. The officials declined to comment on where those camps are located, but reports state that many of the overseas locations are in Turkey and Jordan.

One of the objectives of American commanders in Syria is to try to conduct the bulk of training operations inside Syria’s borders, one U.S. official said Monday. “We would like to train in Syria in the places we operate” in the country, the official said.

While fewer than 100 Syrian rebel militia commanders have participated to date, those commanders lead more than 10,000 fighters in Syria, which brings them under the umbrella of the latest train-and-advise program, according to the trickle-down approach being taken by U.S. special operations advisers in the country.

Military commanders are also taking lessons learned from the initial pilot training operations and compiling them into a playbook for the U.S.-led military training mission.

The changes, Pentagon planners hope, will avoid running into the same pitfalls in the failed train-and-advise mission in Libya. Before the Pentagon shuttered the U.S. Central Command-led operation, American advisers had successfully trained only 180 Libyan militiamen at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars.

But as the U.S. military looks again to restart the effort in Syria, reports of American arms ending up on black markets in the region have raised concerns the program could indirectly be aiding other militant extremist groups in the region.

Failing in Libya

One of the major criticisms of the failed Libya program was the lack of a viable Libyan institution to help U.S. and foreign forces vet candidates for the military training program.

Libyan officials had nowhere to relay their knowledge of the country’s ethnic, sectarian and tribal cleavages, which would have been critical to selecting moderate militias for the program, Wafa Bugaighis, charge d’affaires at the Embassy of Libya, said in a May speech in Washington.

U.S. officials said Monday that they have leaned upon local, regional and tribal leaders in the country to help identify which rebel commanders would be viable candidates for the train-and-equip program.

In several cases, a number of militia leaders have volunteered themselves or senior members of their command for the program. “It’s a mix [of approaches],” another U.S. official told reporters Monday.

While picking the right candidates is key to the program’s success, ensuring the deadly ordnance reaches the right hands is another.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that a CIA program to train and equip Syrian recruits in Jordan resulted in at least some of their equipment, including small arms, heavy weapons and explosives being “lost” and resold on illegal arms markets across the Middle East. The weapons were taken by members of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, the country’s intelligence service, and sold to the highest bidder, the newspaper said.

While the officials could not comment on the program being run by Langley, they did note that several checks and balances have been put in place to ensure the military side of the operation did not suffer the same problems.

Some of the checks in place include having American special operations on location during the transportation and handover of the weapons to properly vetted militias, one official said. U.S. trainers only hand over enough weapons and ammunition to the militias on a mission-by-mission basis to avoid any effort to stockpile weapons by those militias.

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