The top U.S. commander in the Middle East told a congressional panel that only four or five Syrian rebels trained by the United States remain in the fight against Islamic State.
General Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday only a handful of rebels are still in battle, after many of the first 54 graduates of a special training program recently were attacked in Syria by an al-Qaida affiliate.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general conceded the program has gotten off to a "slow start," and he said the U.S. will not reach its original goal, to train more than 5,000 Syrians.
Under Secretary of Defense Christine Wormuth told the committee that only 100 to 120 Syrian fighters were in training.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said during the hearing the low number of U.S.-trained rebel fighters was a "joke."
The original aim of the Obama administration's $500-million training program was to recruit about 5,400 Syrians each year for three years to fight the Islamic State group.
Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, came under heavy criticism during the hearing from the chairman of the Senate panel, John McCain, who called U.S. efforts in Syria an "abject failure."
Austin also vowed to take "appropriate actions" if an investigation indicates that senior defense officials altered intelligence reports on Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria to exaggerate U.S. progress.
He said he could not comment on specific allegations that senior military officers have manipulated the reports, but he said concerns that intelligence documents were sent to the White House are not accurate.
Info manipulation allegations
McCain said his committee is investigating allegations that officials at U.S. Central Command skewed the reports to give a mostly positive picture of the fight against Islamic State. He said if the allegations are true, those responsible must be held accountable.
A U.S. Defense Department inspector general began an investigation after an intelligence officer at Central Command lodged a complaint in July.
During the hearing, the general also commented on the belief Russia is setting up an air base near the northwestern Syrian port of Latakia and is sending soldiers and weapons into Syria to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad .
“We are witnessing a buildup of forces in Syria by Russia," said Austin. "As you know, they have been there all along, but they are increasing their footprint. What they've stated is that they want to focus on helping to counter ISIL as I understand it. That's left to be seen.
"As you know, Russia is not very transparent and so we really don’t know what their true intentions are. But the potential introduction of additional capability and operations, or utilizing that capability, could increase the friction in that battlespace significantly," he said.