The U.S. effort to build a moderate Syrian opposition force that can stand up to Islamic State rebels is moving more slowly than expected due to complications vetting volunteers and bringing them out of Syria for training, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, said between 100 and 200 Syrian fighters were undergoing training in the region, while hundreds more were still being screened or waiting to be brought out of the country.
"As of now, none have completed training," Warren said.
"We are certainly below our expectation on throughput," he added. "As far as recruits for the Syrian train-and-equip mission, we're satisfied. It's the final step that we're having difficulty (with)."
He said some 6,000 Syrians had volunteered to participate in the U.S.-backed effort to train and equip a politically moderate Syrian military force. Of that number, 4,000 were waiting to be vetted. Some 1,500 have fully completed the screening process required to begin training, Defense officials said.
"There are challenges," Warren told a briefing. "This is a very difficult operation to undertake. We have to identify Syrians who want to enter this program, we have to vet them, which is a difficult process."
"There's another difficulty, which is exfiltrating these individuals out of Syria. ... Syria is a very complex, very dangerous place, multiple armed sides battling each other. So the exfiltration process is also a significant challenge," he said, calling it a "choke point."
U.S. officials have said they plan to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters per year for three years under the program, using sites offered by Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The program began in May with about 90 Syrians at one site, and a second has since opened with a similar number.
Warren said the training in Syria is different from that done with government forces in Iraq and did not have a fixed end point.
"The training will take as long as it takes based on the skill level that we see out of the trainees," he said. "We're going to ... continue the training until we get to a point where we believe that they're ready to rejoin the battlefield."
Asked whether the Pentagon still hoped to have the first trainees ready to enter the battle sometime this summer, Warren said, "Let's see how it unfolds."