WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin shocked lawmakers Wednesday when he revealed that a mere handful of U.S.-trained Syrians were still actively engaged against the Islamic State.
"It's a small number," Gen Austin said, "we're talking four or five."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., was not impressed.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Sen. Ayotte said, "that's a joke."
Gen. Austin spoke at the Senate's Armed Services Committee, and conceded the number of U.S.-trained Syrians in the fight against the Islamic State, which is also identified as Daesh and by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, falls drastically short of the goal to arm a fighting force of 15,000. Defense Under Secretary for Policy Christine Wormuth added the program currently in place to build that force is only training between 100 to 120 fighters.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., disappointed at counting recruits "on our fingers and toes," noted that "we had envisioned 5,400 by the end of the year."
The program isn't cheap either. Training a single Syrian fighter reportedly costs about $4 million. A budget of $500 million was requested in 2014. Obstacles to the program's success include the difficulty in finding "moderate" Syrian rebels that can clear the military's screening process, and are more concerned with fighting IS than with fighting President Bashar Assad. Many rebels who expressed interest in the program were left confused as to whether or not they made it through the Pentagon's vetting system.
Another obstacle is a simple lack of faith in the program by Syrian rebels, many of whom question the level of U.S. commitment to the cause.
Gen. Austin expects the number of U.S.-trained fighters in Syria to grow over time. The first group in the program was reportedly scattered in a fight, with many of its members being kidnapped. Gen. Austin the Department of Defense is currently reviewing the program's effectiveness.