WASHINGTON — Only four or five Syrian individuals trained by the United States military to confront the Islamic State remain in the fight, the head of the United States Central Command told a Senate panel on Wednesday, a bleak acknowledgment that the Defense Department’s $500 million program to raise an army of Syrian fighters has gone nowhere.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the top American commander in the Middle East, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States would not reach its goal of training 5,000 Syrian fighters anytime soon.
His comments came during a testy hearing in which a succession of senators from both parties criticized the American-led effort in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, the Sunni militancy also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, questioned why the United States had not set up a no-fly zone over Syria to help protect civilians from bombardment by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said that despite all the “good news” talk from American military officials about how well the war effort was going, “the practical realities aren’t being embraced.”
Graphic | How Syrians Are Dying Over four years of war has forced more than four million to flee the country, fueling a migrant crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
In May, the Defense Department began its training program for up to 5,400 fighters a year, in what White House officials described as a necessary component of President Obama’s strategy to use local troops on the ground against the Islamic State, combined with American air power.
Mr. Obama has been loath to send American ground troops into Iraq or Syria, and has insisted that ground combat against the Islamic State be handled by forces within the countries fighting to rid their territories of the group.
In Iraq, that strategy has had limited success. Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters have retaken some territory that had been seized by the Islamic State, and the group has stalled in its expansion there. But in recent weeks the campaign to retake Ramadi has stalled, and efforts to take back Mosul and Falluja have taken a back seat.
In Syria, the effort to use local ground forces has yet to take off. …Read More