WASHINGTON, May 7, 2015 —
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced today that combat training has begun for nearly 90 fighters from the new Syrian forces and that a second group will begin training in the next few weeks.
Carter spoke alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey during a briefing to the Pentagon press corps here.
“The program is a critical and complex part of our counter-ISIL efforts,” Carter said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
The training for what the secretary called “highly vetted individuals” is led by very experienced trainers and taking place in a secure location, he said.
New Syrian Forces
Carter said the trainees have been in the program for quite a while, having gone through a process of being recruited and vetted.
“The training takes some time,” he added, “and then they would be inserted into operations, and the trainees [coming in] behind them. … We hope this to be an ever-expanding program once it proves itself, which I think it will.”
The trainees are being trained and equipped specifically to fight ISIL, the secretary said.
“That is the purpose, and that is the basis upon which they're being vetted and trained,” Carter said, adding that it’s not a goal of the U.S. program to have the new Syrian forces engage the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The trainees are being fielded to engage ISIL, he said. “That will be their principal mission and that's one of the bases on which they would join our program in the first place.”
If Assad’s forces undertook to engage the new Syrian forces being trained, the Defense Department “would have some responsibility toward them,” the secretary said, but the extent of such responsibility and the rules of engagement have not yet been decided.
Carter said that along with the training, those who participate will receive compensation and small arms.
“We're figuring out what the best training is [and] what the best initial deployment is,” the secretary added. “We expect that to be successful and therefore to grow, but you have to start somewhere, and this is where we're starting.”
Growing the Program
Dempsey noted the program will be grown in a measured way.
“This … program is very complex,” the chairman added. “It won't be easy, but I'd emphasize that it's one part, one component, of a much broader approach.”
The stability of the Assad regime could be a consideration as the training program proceeds, and Dempsey agreed that a destabilized regime would pose new challenges.
“Two years ago, Assad was at a point where we thought he was at a disadvantage and that the opposition was on the rise, and then that situation reversed itself for a period of time,” Dempsey explained, “so we've been through the intellectual rigor of what this might mean.”
For Syria it might mean further instability if power were to transfer precipitously, the chairman said, and it could worsen the humanitarian crisis.
“For us and our counter-ISIL strategy, it wouldn't change the dynamic -- meaning that we still have the fundamental challenge of finding moderate Syrian opposition men to train to be a stabilizing influence over time,” Dempsey said.
“On the side of our diplomacy and our diplomats, there’s the issue of finding moderate Syrian opposition to establish a political structure to which the military force we're building can be responsive,” he added.
The challenges wouldn’t change for the Defense Department, he said, but it would make the situation for Syria more complicated.
Dempsey added, “I do think that the [Assad] regime's momentum has been slowed, and … I do believe the situation is trending less favorably for the regime. And if I were him, I would find the opportunity to look to the negotiating table.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)