Done and done: we've managed to train 60 Syrian fighters to battle ISIS

Ash Carter took the stage at an Armed Services Committee hearing on the hill today and came forward with a rather stunning admission. One of the key elements of our “leading from behind” effort in Syria was to keep US boots off that ground and to train some of the locals to fight for their own home turf. A few months into the effort and with plenty of resources to spare, we’ve managed to train up sixty guys.

The United States was only training about 60 Syrian opposition fighters to battle Islamic State as of July 3, far below expectations, partly due to rigorous U.S. vetting of recruits, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress on Tuesday.

“We are looking for ways to streamline our train and equip program’s vetting process to get more recruits into the training pipeline,” Carter told a Senate hearing in prepared remarks.

To be fair, Bill Nelson (a member of the committee) was quick to get on the air with a rebuttal which actually makes sense. He says that they have “fully vetted” sixty fighters and got them into the training program, but there are seven thousand more fighters going through the vetting process. That really doesn’t sound shocking to me at all. We’re talking about a scorpion’s nest over there and figuring out who is who and where their loyalties lie is no walk in the park. If anything, we could be hurting our efforts if we wind up training and arming a bunch of guys who turn out to have just been waiting around for the next bus to leave for the ISIS recruiting center. And for the most part we’re not talking about people who are showing up with passports, full sets of documentation, resumes and job references here. Frankly, I’m not sure how they are managing the vetting at all at this point.

But the revelations do seem to underscore some of the questions which arose around John McCain’s previous plans about using home grown forces to fight either ISIS or Assad. He has long been pushing to arm the rebels and at least do something rather than sitting on our hands. (From one year ago)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pressed for increasing aid to moderate rebel groups after meeting Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey Wednesday, warning that delays would “fuel the growing danger” to U.S. security.

McCain said pro-Western Syrian forces were fighting a “two-front war” against both Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni militant group that has captured huge swaths of both countries.

“Further reluctance to support moderate Syrian opposition forces in fighting more effectively against both Assad and ISIS will only fuel the growing danger that the current threats in Syria and Iraq now pose to the United States and our national interests,” warned McCain.

McCain said he met with representatives from the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, as well as the interim government, activists and commanders from the Free Syria Army.

I still think it’s good in theory, but the execution is beyond tricky. We have far too many “friends” over in that part of the world who turn out to have a knife waiting to stick in our backs as soon as we turn around. To do a proper job, this sort of vetting is required, but the actual process of doing so is daunting. The exit question is… how did the administration not anticipate this before pushing all of our chips in on this plan? Shouldn’t this have been predictable? And how much time actually remains on the clock if they think they can finish training and arming seven thousand more fighters at this rate? We could be in there for a decade, assuming Syria even lasts that long.