The Obama administration’s troubled $500 million program to train Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants is veering towards complete meltdown.
The thus far useless effort experienced another major setback late last week when a spokesman from U.S. Central Command, which overseas military operations in the Middle East, confirmed U.S.-trained rebels gave away a quarter of their equipment – including vehicles and ammunition – to the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in exchange for safe passage into the war-torn country.
"If accurate, the report of [New Syrian Forces] members providing equipment to al-Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines,” Colonel Patrick Ryder said, in a statement.
The admission came after day of Pentagon officials strongly condemning media reports that the trade had taken place and was just the latest embarrassment for the program that the White House says is integral to defeating ISIS.
Earlier this month Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin stunned lawmakers when he said the U.S. train and equip had only “four or five” graduates still in the field. The command has since upped that number to around 70.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power defended the ongoing effort in an interview this weekend but admitted it hasn’t gone as smoothly as planned.
“It’s obviously even more complex, I think, than we would have envisioned,” she said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.
The program is sure to be discussed when President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in New York during the U.N. General Assembly.
Moscow has rapidly expanded its military presence in the country, creating an airbase near the city of Latakia. On Sunday, Russia announced it had struck a deal to share intelligence from the ISIS fight with Iran, Iraq and Syria, surprising the Obama administration.
In an interview with CBS and PBS that was released by the Kremlin, Putin derided the Syrian rebel program as illegal.
“In my view, providing military aid to illegitimate organizations contravenes the principles of international law and the U.N. Charter,” he said, according to an excerpt. “We back only legal government entities,” he added.
Putin mocked the effort, encapsulating its various failures.
“The initial aim was to train 5,000 to 6,000 fighters, then 12,000, but it turns out that only 60 were trained and only four or five are actually fighting,” he said. “All the others simply ran away with their American weapons to Islamic State.”
Patience for the program may be wearing thin on Capitol Hill, as well.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said last week’s incident “is confirmation that U.S. policy may unwittingly be furthering this catastrophic endgame” and called on the administration to suspend the effort.
“Empowering al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria would be a disastrous side effect of the Syrian train and equip program. The only thing worse than Bashar al-Assad staying in power is for him to be replaced by an al Qaeda backed regime,” Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday in a statement.