Pentagon preparing shift in approach in Syria

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is preparing a major overhaul of its failed effort to train thousands of moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State group, shifting from preparing rebels for frontline combat to a plan to embed them with established Kurdish and Arab forces in northeastern Syria, U.S. officials said.

Instead of fighting the Islamic State in small units, the U.S.-trained rebels would be attached to larger existing Kurdish and Arab forces. They would be equipped with U.S. communications gear and trained to provide intelligence and to designate IS targets for airstrikes in coordination with U.S. troops outside of Syria, the officials said.

The change amounts to an acknowledgement that the administration's current approach is not working. It was described by officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because a final decision on how to proceed has not been made.

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Pentagon preparing shift in approach in Syria
SOCHI, RUSSIA- SEPTEMBER 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during the meeting with newly elected governors September 17, 2015 in Sochi, Russia. Putin said this week that it's impossible to defeat Islamic State group without support of the government of Syria and that Moscow has provided military assistance to President Bashar al-Assad's regime and will continue to do so. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
This September 2015 satellite image with annotations provided by GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus shows Russian transport aircraft, helicopters, tanks, trucks and armed personnel carriers at an air base in Latakia province, Syria. Russia on Thursday, Sept. 17, strongly urged the United States and its allies to engage the Syrian government as a "partner" in the fight against the Islamic State group, and offered to share any information about its military supplies to Damascus with Washington. (GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus via AP)
SOCHI, RUSSIA- NOVEMBER 26: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Bocharov Ruchey State Residence on November 26, 2014 in in Sochi, Russia. Foreign Minister of Syria is on a one-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Head of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Hassan Abdel Azim (R) and other members of the Syrian tolerated opposition attend a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on August 31, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 29 : Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (3-R), Russian President Vladimir Putin (3-R) and Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov (R) meet with members of the Elders group (L-R) former Algerian Foreign Minister and UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, Mexico's former President Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, former UN Secretary-General, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chair of The Elders Kofi Annan, former president of the United States and Nobel Peace Laureate Jimmy Carter and former Prime Minister of Norway and Deputy Chair of The Elders Gro Harlem Brundtland at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, 29 April 2015. (Photo by Russia Kremlin Press-Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony of receiving foreign ambassadors' credentials in Aleksandrovsky (Alexander's) Hall in Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on January 16, 2014. Russia launched today a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a ceremony of receiving foreign ambassadors' credentials in in Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on January 16, 2014. Russia launched today a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as they meet in Moscow's Kremlin, on January 16, 2014. Russia launched today a fresh round of Syrian diplomacy on as it hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria ahead of peace talks in Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ SERGEI KARPUKHIN (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 22: Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) arrive to the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council meeting in the Konstantin Palace on November 22, 2013 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Erdogan is on a two-day official visit to Saint Petersburg to attend the fourth session of the Russian-Turkish High-Level Cooperation Council with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are expected to discuss economic development and cooperation, with the Syrian Crisis expected to be top the agenda. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA- NOVEMBER 26: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bocharov Ruchey State Residence on November 26, 2014 in in Sochi, Russia. Foreign Minister of Syria is on a one-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) during their meeting at the residence of Bocharov Ruchei in Sochi on November 26, 2014. President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday hosted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in his first meeting with a top envoy from Damascus since the old Moscow ally plunged into civil war more than three years ago. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
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The discussion of a new approach comes a day after the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, told Congress that the $500 million effort to train 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels in a year had yielded "four or five" new fighters after another 50 or so were captured, wounded or fled in their first encounter with extremist militants.

The new approach is designed to intensify military pressure on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the so-called caliphate the Islamic State has established across much of Syria and Iraq. The city is sometimes targeted by American-led coalition airstrikes, and Syrian government forces have occasionally targeted it as well.

In addition to changing the role of the U.S.-trained rebels, the Pentagon would scale back their numbers from the original target of 5,400 per year to a much smaller total, perhaps 500, the officials said. Their vetting, designed to weed out terrorist infiltrators, also would be streamlined, one official said Thursday.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters Thursday that officials are looking to make "adjustments," adding, "We're asking a host of questions about this program." He said the plan is for it to continue "in some form or fashion." He was not more specific.

Austin, who leads the anti-Islamic State campaign, told a Senate committee Wednesday that only four or five U.S.-trained rebels are currently operating inside Syria. That compares to the administration's original goal to train and equip 5,000 fighters by the end of this year.

Austin's disclosure triggered an avalanche of caustic comments. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, called it "a joke." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was further proof that the administration's counter-IS strategy is an "abject failure."

In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said the program's collapse could have been predicted.

"I wish I could say the complete failure of this strategy comes as a surprise. Unfortunately, it does not," she said.

In light of Austin's admission, Cook was asked Thursday whether Defense Secretary Ash Carter was considering firing the four-star Army general. Cook said Carter has "full confidence" in Austin.

At Wednesday's hearing, Austin and the Pentagon's policy chief, Christine Wormuth, made oblique references to altering the train-and-equip program, which Congress authorized last December with $500 million in funding.

Saying the program "has gotten off to a slow start," Austin said he was considering "the best means to employ these forces as we go forward," taking into account lessons learned from having sent an initial group of 54 U.S.-trained rebels into Syria in late July only to have them immediately attacked by al-Nusra, a Syrian al-Qaida affiliate. That debacle led to an administration review of the program and the current proposal to scale back the rebels' combat role.

Wormuth cited the prospect of using the U.S.-trained moderate rebels to "enable" the efforts of the Syrian Kurds, who already are coordinating with U.S. forces outside of Syria, as well as a group she called the Syrian Arab Coalition. The thinking is that the Syrian Arab force, which Wormuth called "very effective" in northeastern Syria, is in the best position to put heavy pressure on Raqqa.

Austin said Kurds coordinating with Sunni Arabs in northeast Syria near the Turkish border have retaken more than 17,000 square kilometers of terrain from the Islamic State over the past several months.

"The effects that they have achieved serve to create significant opportunities that, if pursued, could prove devastating for the enemy," the general said.

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