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Failed anti-ISIS force in Syria cost $2M per fighter

| Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, 9:12 p.m.
A resident rides his bicycle near what activists said was an  exploded cluster bomb shell in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A resident rides his bicycle near what activists said was an exploded cluster bomb shell in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon pulled the plug last month on its plan to train and field a force of moderate Syrians to combat the Islamic State, it had spent $384 million, or $2 million per fighter, for a program that produced dismal results, according to interviews and spending figures obtained by USA Today.

The Pentagon tabbed $500 million in 2015 for the effort and promised to graduate 3,000 trained and equipped New Syrian Forces fighters this year, and 5,000 annually thereafter to combat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Of the 180 Syrians vetted, trained and equipped, 145 fighters remain in the program. Of those, 95 are in Syria today. Two of the four training camps the Pentagon designated for the program in the Middle East never hosted a recruit.

The Pentagon disputes the $2 million figure, saying the cost is $30,000 per trainee. The “vast majority” of the funds paid for weapons, equipment and ammunition, some of which the U.S.-led coalition has in storage, Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email. Some of those trained fighters have been calling in airstrikes, and ammunition designated for the trainees has been given instead to other forces fighting ISIS, Smith said.

“Our investment in the Syria train and equip program should not be viewed purely in fiscal terms,” Smith said.

Separately, in Iraq, the Pentagon has spent nearly $1 billion training and equipping security forces to counter ISIS, according to Mark Wright, a spokesman. Despite that, ISIS still holds Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city after Baghdad, and Ramadi, a major city in the west.

The Syria train-and-equip program was a centerpiece of the White House and Pentagon strategy to confront ISIS. The Pentagon announced that it planned to recruit, vet, train and equip thousands of Syrian “moderates” to protect their villages from ISIS's onslaught.

The spending figures for the program, broken down into nine categories, show that the Pentagon earmarked tens of millions of dollars to build training camps that were rarely if ever used and for flights to ferry trainees from their homes to training sites and battlefields. About $47 million was designated under the heading “services.”

In the end, the program fielded fewer than 200 fighters. In September, one group of trainees surrendered one quarter of their U.S.-supplied weapons, ammunition and vehicles for safe passage through territory held by another rebel group. Last month, the Pentagon shelved the training effort, noting its poor results. Attention has shifted to groups already fighting ISIS in Syria, and 50 U.S. commandos will be deployed there to help coordinate their efforts.

While the training has stopped, the United States will still give equipment and weapons to the leaders of vetted groups of rebels who are already fighting ISIS “so that over time they continue to re-claim territory,” Smith said.

Restrictions placed on Syrians eligible for training doomed it to failure, said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. The fighters had to pledge to fight ISIL, not the regime of Bashar Assad, and they had to be free of links to one of his main opponents, the Al Nusra Group, an al-Qaida affiliate. That pool was exceptionally small, she said.

“We eliminated a large portion of the rebels with the requirements imposed on trainees,” Cafarella said.

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