By LOLITA C. BALDOR and ROBERT BURNS | Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — The U.S. is abandoning its goal of training a new force of moderate Syrian rebels and will focus on equipping, arming and supporting established rebels 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 briefed on the new approach said it would focus heavily on equipping and enabling established Kurdish and Arab rebel groups rather than recruiting and vetting a new cadre of moderate rebels, training them at camps in Turkey and 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 select rebel groups inside Syria, with limited training activity.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the change publicly.
The CIA runs a separate, covert program run 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 with its goals, 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,” using an acronym for the Islamic State.
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.
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Burns reported from Washington.