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World

U.S. Halts Program To Train Syrian Rebels Fighting ISIS

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Obama administration is embarking on a major policy shift in Syria, specifically how it's been fighting the Islamic State there. Defense officials said today that they will, to use their word, pause the effort to train and equip fighters. The strategy has been unsuccessful. Some senators have called it an embarrassment and a failure. The new approach will be to reach out to the leaders of established fighting groups in Syria and to provide them with equipment and American airstrikes. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. And Tom, why was this Syrian rebel train-and-equip effort so unsuccessful?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, the biggest problem was the mission itself. They never wanted to fight the Islamic State, these rebels. They wanted to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but the U.S. has no clear plan to get rid of Assad, so many of these fighters just dropped out.

Another problem was the screening process took too long. And besides that, many potential fighters were too young - 16 years old and under. And the first two trained groups they actually sent into Syria met with disaster. The first group had some of its fighters captured by more radical rebels, and some in the second group turned over their trucks and weapons to these radicals. Now the U.S., Robert, wanted to train 5,400 rebels by year's end. Congress was told recently there are only four or five trained rebels on the ground in Syria.

SIEGEL: OK. How much more have you been able to learn about the new program they're talking about?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. wants to work with new groups of seasoned fighters and also existing ones like the Syrian Kurds who were able to capture the northern Syrian city of Kobani from the Islamic State fighters earlier this year with a lot of American airstrikes. Now, the success at Kobani, they see as a model. And today, administration officials talked about the way ahead. Here's Brett McGurk. He's a deputy special envoy for the coalition against ISIS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRETT MCGURK: We've gotten to know a lot of these fighters, a lot of the leaders - Arabs, Kurds. There were Christians there. And so we looking for ways to take advantage of those relationships and harness them.

BOWMAN: So the U.S. will screen the leaders rather than the hundreds or thousands of fighters so it all moves faster. And with U.S. equipment, the ultimate prize here is Raqqa in northeastern Syria. That's the headquarters for the Islamic State.

SIEGEL: You say with U.S. equipment. What kind of equipment will they be getting, and will that include weapons?

BOWMAN: Well, first and foremost, communications gear so they can call in American airstrikes, also provide intelligence. And I'm told they'll get some weapons as well. But at this point, the administration says it will not provide heavy arms like anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired missiles. They want to develop a relationship with these leaders first.

SIEGEL: Tom, what about the existing Syrian rebels trained by the military but also the larger number trained by the CIA? Will they continue to get U.S. support?

BOWMAN: Yes, they will. The administration officials say they'll continue to provide arms and equipment to the current group of rebels trained by the military. Again, we're not talking many - a couple of hundred, at best. Now, those CIA-trained rebels - probably thousands of them, and they're working on the other side of the country in the west of Syria and the South. And some of them are under attack by Russian aircraft.

SIEGEL: Speaking of whom, could the Russians start attacking these rebels as well?

BOWMAN: Well, that's a big concern of Pentagon officials. They say after they take out rebels in the West, maybe they'll start moving east. But right now, the Russians are focused pretty much in the western part of Syria where there's a variety of rebels who are making some headway against Russia's ally, President Assad. And that's far from this eastern part of the country where the U.S. hope to create relationships with these rebel groups and eventually hammer the Islamic state.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman on the White House stopping its program of training fighters to take on the Islamic State. Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.