US military officials are considering ways to ramp up training of Syrian fighters against Isis (Islamic State) as the Pentagon moves cautiously forward with a revamped programme to create an effective local ground force.
Several US officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military efforts, described the modest progress that the Pentagon has made since late last year, when the Obama Administration abandoned an earlier Syria training plan.
After repeated setbacks to that programme, which aimed to create an army of Syrian fighters from scratch, officials settled on a more modest approach, one that would train only small numbers of leaders or other key personnel from local units who could act as a liaison with US and allied forces attacking Isis from the air.
Since the original programme was revised, US military personnel have trained fewer than 100 additional fighters, mostly outside Syria, officials said. Those trained are specialised fighters who military officials describe as "spotters" rather than ordinary infantry troops.
"What we're looking at now is taking out key enabler personnel from certain units, training them and then reinserting them so they can provide information to the coalition to enable us to then target [Isis]," one official said.
The output of the revamped programme is only a modest addition to that of the failed initial plan that, after months of work and millions of dollars, only trained about 200 fighters before it was ended.
New details of the ongoing training effort shed new light on the mission of the elite US forces in Syria, whose activities the Pentagon has sought to keep out of public view. With about 300 Special Operations troops on the ground, the Pentagon is now overseeing a patchwork of activities in support of various friendly Syrian factions across the country.
Those include fighters from northwest and southern Syria trained in the original Pentagon program; Kurdish troops battling Isis in northern and eastern Syria; and Arab tribal forces who military officials hope will prove capable of encircling militants in their de facto capital of Raqqa.
US forces in Syria, in northeast Syria far from government forces, are primarily advising and equipping local forces as they seek to recapture territory from Isis.
At the same time, other US personnel continue to train Syrian "enabler" forces at a slow clip outside Syria, at facilities in Jordan and Turkey.
Officials said that, with six months behind them in the revised training scheme, they are now looking at options to expand current training activities, potentially within or outside Syria.
"We've had a couple of trials and we're going to look to continue to develop off of those," the official said.
In April, President Obama announced a significant expansion to the US Special Operations presence in Syria, a sign of increasing comfort with the small, vulnerable US operation in a country whose government remains a foe. The following month, General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, made a visit to a training site in northern Syria.
The Pentagon initiative is separate from a CIA-led training programme that has provided support to rebels battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This week, the New York Times and al-Jazeera reported that weapons destined for those rebels were diverted and sold on the black market.
Officials said the Pentagon is seeking to avoid similar problems in part by giving Syrian forces limited amounts of ammunition, equipping those units on a operation-by-operation basis. They also hope that having American personnel on the ground will provide a check on what happens to US-provided weaponry.
"These are all transnational relationships," the official said. "We provide enough for them to accomplish the next objective."