The US is abandoning its goal of training a new force of moderate Syrian rebels and will focus on equipping, arming and supporting established groups already fighting Islamic State (IS) inside Syria, officials said.
The change reflects the failure of the current approach, which has produced only a handful of combat-ready moderates and drawn deep criticism in Congress.
Officials said the new approach would focus heavily on equipping and enabling established Kurdish and Arab rebel groups rather than recruiting and vetting a new cadre of moderate rebels, training them at camps in Turkey and Jordan and reinserting them as an infantry force into Syria.
The $500m Congress provided last year for the programme will be used more for equipping select rebel groups inside Syria, with limited training activity.
The CIA runs a separate, covert programme that began in 2013 to arm, fund, and train a moderate opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
US officials say that effort is having more success than the one run by the military, which only trained militants willing to promise to take on IS exclusively.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the new approach is aimed at improving US support for partners on the ground in Syria. He did not spell out details but said defence secretary Ash Carter had directed that “equipment packages and weapons” be provided to “a select group of vetted leaders and their units”.
Under the new approach, the US would provide small arms and ammunition, as well as communications gear and limited training of rebel leaders, to enable established rebel groups to co-ordinate US air strikes in support of their ground operation, the officials said.
The overhaul keeps the effort in line with the administration’s basic formula of leveraging US air power to enhance the efforts of Syrian rebels on the ground.
Mr Cook said the new focus on equipping and enabling existing rebels will allow the US to “reinforce the progress already made” in countering IS.
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