Oct 9, 1:22 PM EDT

Pentagon giving up on building new Syrian rebel force

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LONDON (AP) -- The U.S. is abandoning its goal of having America's military train a new force of moderate Syrian rebels, turning its focus to equipping, arming and supporting established groups already fighting against the Islamic State group inside Syria, officials said Friday.

The change reflects the failure of the current approach, which has produced only a handful of combat-ready moderate rebels and drawn widespread criticism in Congress.

Officials said the new approach focuses heavily on equipping and enabling Kurdish, Arab and other rebel groups that the U.S. has been coordinating with in recent months rather than recruiting and vetting a new cadre of moderate rebels, pulling them out of Syria for training in Turkey or Jordan and re-inserting them as an infantry force into Syria.

The $500 million Congress provided last year for the program will be used more for equipping and arming select rebel groups inside Syria, with limited training activity.

Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon's policy chief, told reporters in Washington that the effort to train and equip a new rebel fighting force, as intended when the program began early this year, is being "paused" but might be restarted one day.

"A key part of our strategy remains trying to work with capable indigenous forces on the ground" in Syria, Wormuth said.

The new aim is to "work with groups on the ground who are already fighting ISIL and provide them some equipment to make them more effective, in combination with our airstrikes," Wormuth said, adding that the U.S. "will be taking some of the leaders of these groups who are already fighting on the ground," vetting them to ensure against affiliations with terrorist groups, "and then giving them basic equipment packages to distribute to their fighting force."

The CIA runs a separate, covert program that began in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad. U.S. officials say that effort is having more success than the one run by the military, which only trained militants willing to promise to take on the Islamic State exclusively.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the new approach is aimed at improving U.S. support for partners on the ground in Syria. He did not spell out details but said Defense Secretary Ash Carter had directed that "equipment packages and weapons" be provided to "a select group of vetted leaders and their units."

The aim, Cook said, is to work with these unspecified units "so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL."

Under the new approach, the U.S. would provide small arms and ammunition, as well as communications gear and limited training of rebel leaders, to enable established rebel groups to coordinate U.S. airstrikes in support of their ground operation, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the shift in approach had not yet been announced.

The overhaul keeps the effort in line with the administration's basic formula of leveraging U.S. airpower to enhance the efforts of Syrian rebels on the ground. The U.S. already has had some success working, for example, with Syrian Arab rebel groups.

"I remain convinced that a lasting defeat of ISIL in Syria will depend in part on the success of local, motivated, and capable ground forces," Carter said in a written statement. "I believe the changes we are instituting today will, over time, increase the combat power of counter-ISIL forces in Syria and ultimately help our campaign achieve a lasting defeat of ISIL."

The original program was beset with a series of embarrassing setbacks. The first group of trainees largely disbanded soon after they were sent into combat; some were captured or killed, while others fled. A second class yielded only a small number of new fighters, drawing criticism from U.S. lawmakers who condemned the program as a joke and a failure. A Syrian rebel commander leading the trainees last week handed over a half-dozen vehicles to extremist militants.

U.S. officials have said the new effort would focus more on embedding recruits with established Kurdish and Arab units, rather than sending them directly into front-line combat.

"The work we've done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach," Carter told a news conference in London without providing any details of the new program. "That's exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward."

Instead of fighting IS in small units, the U.S.-trained rebels would be attached to larger existing Kurdish and Arab forces. They would be equipped with U.S. communications gear and trained to provide intelligence and to designate Islamic State targets for airstrikes in coordination with U.S. troops outside of Syria, officials said.

Officials have said the new plan scales back the number of rebels the U.S. expects to train from the initial 5,400 per year to a much smaller total. It also would streamline the vetting process designed to weed out terrorist infiltrators.


Burns reported from Washington.

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