CIA military training of Syrian rebels denounced as 'incredibly slow'

Yousef Hassan, a Syrian rebel commander of the Afhad al Rasoul Brigades, observes the Syrian government military airport at Abu Duhor, south of Aleppo.


By PAUL RICHTER | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: October 31, 2013

WASHINGTON — The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee denounced the CIA’s year-old program to provide military training to moderate Syrian rebels, saying it was “incredibly, incredibly slow” and had so far instructed only about 1,000 fighters.

During testimony Thursday by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee questioned whether the covert training program, nonlethal aid to the rebels and other U.S. assistance adds up to a genuine strategy for ending the civil war that erupted in early 2011.

Corker said the CIA was training only about “50 to 100” rebels a month. And he said that trucks that are now being delivered to the rebels were due in August.

“Do we have a strategy at all relative to the opposition and building their strength against al-Qaida on the ground, and the regime?” Corker asked Ford.

He thanked the ambassador for agreeing to appear before the committee “because you have to be incredibly embarrassed at where we are.”

The CIA training program began late last year, and, though supposedly secret, has been cited by U.S. officials as an example of the Obama administration’s commitment to help moderate rebel groups oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But the effort has been small, and has not allowed the moderate rebels to gain ground against fast-growing Islamist rebel groups or Assad’s government, which has the support of thousands of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.

Corker mocked the covert program, saying “everybody in the world knows about” it, and that it was labeled secret “so that we don’t have to talk about it in committee settings like this one. But basically, we’ve trained about a thousand folks.”

Ford acknowledged that everyone on his State Department team felt frustrated by the Syrian crisis. But he insisted that the administration’s moderate allies valued the help they were receiving from Washington, including the trucks.

The administration has been trying to negotiate a peace agreement between the government and the opposition and to provide humanitarian relief, without embroiling the United States in another war in the Islamic world.

While Ford heard some expression of support for the administration’s approach, some Democrats joined Republican critics.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and the committee chairman, took aim at the State Department’s year-old effort to organize a peace conference in Geneva.

“While the international community holds meetings about meetings, the Assad regime continues its brutal assault on the Syrian people, backed by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah,” Menendez said.