WASHINGTON The United States said on Tuesday it was falling far behind plans to build a Syrian opposition force to battle Islamic State, disclosing that just 60 fighters were in training after U.S. vetting thinned the number of recruits.
The U.S. military launched its program in May to train up to 5,400 fighters a year in what was seen as a test of President Barack Obama's strategy of getting local partners to combat extremists and keep U.S. troops off the front lines.
The training program has been challenged from the start, with many candidates being declared ineligible and some even dropping out. Obama's requirement that they target militants from Islamic State has sidelined huge segments of the Syrian opposition focused instead on battling Syrian government forces.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter revealed the low number of Syrian trainees at a Senate hearing, acknowledging that it was "much smaller than we hoped for at this point."
"We'll do better ... and that number, 60, which is not impressive, will get ... larger over time," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that the United States was screening 7,000 potential recruits.
The White House acknowledged that 60 recruits was "not enough" but said the United States was being rightly careful about who to admit to the training, which has been carried out at sites in Jordan and Turkey.
Obama's critics seized on the figures as evidence that his strategy against Islamic State militants was failing in Syria and Iraq, where the U.S. military has publicly criticized Baghdad for not providing enough trainees.
"There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve the president's long-stated goal of degrading or ultimately destroying ISIL," said Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The group is also known as ISIL and ISIS.
McCain accused Obama of a "disturbing degree of self-delusion."
Some Syrian rebel leaders have said the force the United States is training risks sowing divisions among opposition forces and cannot succeed without directly targeting Syrian government forces.
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.
Obama was briefed by his senior military commanders at the Pentagon on Monday. He later said at a news conference, "We will do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria," but he did not offer details.
Carter told Congress that the number of recruits would increase as the United States learned how to 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 say whether the United States will go beyond resupplying and financing the proxy force, and protect it with U.S. fighter jets if it clashes with Syrian government forces. The United States is 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 that might entail.
"It's shameful - shameful to send people in and not assure them that we will defend them against attacks by barrel bombs," McCain said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, David Alexander and Alex Wilts; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Toni Reinhold)