WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s choice to be the next U.S. commander for the Middle East sought to assure lawmakers a revised effort to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels for the fight against the Islamic State group won’t repeat the same mistakes that doomed a similar program last year.
Testifying Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Joseph Votel described the new approach as a “thickening effort” as opposed to the raising of a large, decisive force.
“I do think it is helpful to have people who have been trained by us, who have the techniques, who have the communications capability and the resources to link back into our firepower,” Votel said. The trained fighters, Votel added, will present the Islamic State with added “dilemmas.”
If confirmed, Votel would take over leadership of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq, Syria and 18 other countries. He would succeed Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is retiring.
Austin told the committee Tuesday that he’s already requested permission from the Obama administration for the retooled Syrian train and equip effort. Austin emphasized that the new program will focus on training smaller numbers of fighters for shorter periods.
During a wide-ranging confirmation hearing, Votel said he does not have all the people and equipment required to eliminate the Islamic State. He said he anticipates needing “additional resources” to retake the group’s strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, although he didn’t specify what he has in mind.
The only U.S. ground forces in Syria are a contingent of roughly 50 special operations troops who deployed last year to work with local Syrian fighters trying to break the Islamic State’s grip on Raqqa, the group’s self-declared capital. A separate U.S. commando force is in Iraq dedicated to capturing and killing the group’s leaders and gathering intelligence that can be used to conduct follow-on raids and strikes.
Votel pledged to push for the “right resources for our people to have to accomplish the missions that we are asking them to do.”
Skeptical lawmakers questioned Votel about how potential rebel recruits in Syria would be vetted and whether they would be constrained from attacking Syrian President Bashar Assad troops. The general said that individual fighters would not be vetted prior to the training, but the leaders of those fighters would be. The Islamic State would be their target.
“We’re trying to avoid is the problem that we had the last time, where we didn’t know what their allegiances are,” Votel said. “Certainly our mission is (the Islamic State) and so it is our intent that they help with the (Islamic State) mission.”
Votel acknowledged that approach might limit the pool of recruits.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it’s unrealistic to limit Syrian fighters after Assad’s forces have repeatedly attacked civilians with barrel bombs, a crude weapon used to inflict mass casualties.
The Islamic State “isn’t barrel bombing the men, women and children,” McCain said. “Bashar Assad is.”
The Obama administration last year scrapped a beleaguered $500 million train and equip program for Syria after Austin told Congress that only four or five trained fighters were battling the militants — significantly short of the U.S. goal to train 5,000. About 50 new fighters had been captured, wounded or fled in their first encounter with extremist militants.
Votel, 57, is a former commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He headed the secretive Joint Special Operations Command before taking over U.S. Special Operations Command in 2014.
Army Lt. Gen. Tony Thomas has been nominated to replace Votel at Special Operations Command.
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