PENTAGON - As airstrikes continue against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria Friday, U.S. teams tasked with training select Syrian rebel groups were getting in place to start their work.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced at a press conference with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, that assessment teams have arrived in Saudi Arabia. The teams are part of the U.S. military’s plan to train elements of the Syrian opposition to fight Islamic State militants.
The defense secretary said the opposition fighters are being vetted by U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence experts to determine which Syrians will be trained, but the rebel groups will choose their own leadership.
“We’re not going to instruct them as to who their leaders are,” Hagel said. “They’ll make their own decisions on who their leaders are.”
Hagel told reporters that since Monday, the U.S. and its Arab allies have conducted 43 air strikes in Syria, and the number of U.S. and French air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq soared past 200.
“This has been an important week for the U.S. and coalition forces,” Hagel said.
Both Hagel and Dempsey stressed that defeating the IS militant group will require a long-term commitment on the part of the U.S. and its allies.
“We have to do it right, not fast,” Dempsey said. He added that the number of Syrian opposition forces needed to push back the militants would likely be two or three times higher than the 5,000 Congress recently authorized the U.S. military to train and equip.
“Five thousand has never been the end state,” he said. “We’ve had estimates anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 is what we believe they would need to recapture lost territory in eastern Syria.”