WASHINGTON — The recent capture of a handful of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters shortly after entering Syria may make it even harder to recruit reluctant volunteers for a new ground force to combat the Islamic State, USA Today reports.
The Pentagon said Wednesday about five American-trained troops remain in custody after being taken over the weekend by the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria. “The details, the motivations, the conditions are unknown,” said Navy Capt Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
“It’s a huge embarrassment,” said Jeff White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. The men who were captured were part of a force of about 60 troops that were in the first class of Pentagon-trained recruits and had just entered Syria to fight the Islamic State. “It was foolish to send them in in small numbers,” White said.
The troops entered Syria and came under attack on Friday. Backed by five U.S. airstrikes, the U.S.-backed rebels repelled the Nusra forces, but a handful were captured. The Pentagon initially planned to train 5,400 recruits a year, building a force of about 15,000 to counter the Islamic State in Syria.
The Pentagon is struggling to meet those goals, however, since it is looking for recruits who have no ties to radical Islamic groups and are willing to pledge to fight the Islamic State and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is struggling to win a four-year-long civil war.
Finding moderate rebels focused on the Islamic State has proved difficult. “Their priority is to fight Assad,” said Chris Kozak, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. The Pentagon would not detail how many more are in the training pipeline.
“To do this right, takes time and due diligence in vetting personnel so we get the right people, doing the right things with the training and equipping they are being offered,” said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
White said the recent capture would likely hurt recruiting initially, but if the U.S.-backed forces begin to have successes, that would change. The Pentagon has said it will support the forces as they deploy into Syria, ensuring they will not be left on their own.
But the Pentagon has not said what it would do if the U.S.-trained forces clash with troops from the Syrian government, which the U.S. does not want to confront militarily. The Pentagon said it would not discuss specific “rules of engagement,” but U.S. officials suggested they would take action against any force threatening the U.S.-trained troops.
“We’ve said all along that we’ll take necessary steps to ensure these forces can successfully carry out their mission,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “If the Syrian fighters we have trained and equipped come under attack, the president would have the authority under the Constitution to defend those fighters,” the Pentagon said in a statement.