Last June, the White House asked Congress for $500 million to train and arm Syrian rebels who could help stem the growing influence of the Islamic State. The effort was seen as a necessary way to fulfill President Obama’s pledge of keeping American ground troops out of the conflict, and as an important caveat, the administration assured lawmakers that it would screen any potential trainees to filter out extremists.
Risky, maybe, but the US military said it churn out 5,400 fighters a year, and that adds a lot of muscle to the fight.
But, one year later, no one has completed the training program, and fewer than 100 are currently enrolled.
"We are trying to recruit and identify people who…can be counted on…to fight, to have the right mindset and ideology," Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
"It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria."
“It is simply difficult to acquire the number of Syrian rebels willing to participate in the training under current parameters,” Jennifer Cafarella, with the Institute for the Study of War, told Fox News.
Many of the rebel groups that would fall under the US definition of "moderate" have openly expressed frustration with Washington’s narrow focus on the Islamic State. Even if the Pentagon accepted a broader spectrum of rebels to meet its quota, many groups have simply lost interest in playing along.
The Pentagon also has little way of assuring that arms provided to its "moderate" rebel groups don’t find their way into the hands of the Islamic State.
Even once the recruits complete the preparation courses, the US has not entirely decided on what to do with them. After being trained at bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the rebels would be sent back into Syria, but Washington is still deciding on what of support to provide, be it intelligence, communications, logistics, or air support.
Still, an army of 100 will do little against a militant group that’s grown as strong as the Islamic State, no matter what kind of support they’re given. Last week, military officials said they still hoped to reach their goal of training 3,000 rebels by 2016.
With only five months remaining, that’s just 2,900 left to go.