WASHINGTON • Only about 60 Syrian rebels are being trained by the United States to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said, admitting it was far below the number hoped for.
The disclosure is likely to add to criticism of the Obama adminis-tration's military strategy, with US Senator John McCain saying that the United States was "losing" the fight against the extremists, who have overrun large areas of Syria and Iraq.
Several lawmakers, including Mr McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, grilled Mr Carter and the military's top general, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey, on Tuesday on topics ranging from Ukraine to the Middle East. America wants to train thousands of moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS forces, but Mr Carter said only a few dozen had so far been approved for a programme that is a central tenet of Washington's strategy to beat the ISIS militants.
He said the US was training about 60 fighters as of last week.
"This number is much smaller than we had hoped for at this point," he added.
He pointed to difficulties in vetting suitable candidates.
"We know this programme is essential. We need a partner on the ground in Syria to assure ISIL's lasting defeat." ISIL is another name for ISIS.
Mr McCain criticised what he called "not a very impressive number". In January, the Pentagon said about 5,400 Syrian rebels would be trained and armed in the first year of the programme and US lawmakers have allocated about US$500 million (S$678 million) to the effort.
Mr McCain said the "reality" on the ground is that ISIS militants continue to gain territory in Iraq and Syria, while expanding their footprint across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
"There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve the President's long-stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL - either in the short term or the long term," he said at the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs.
"Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends. That suggests we are not winning, and when you are not winning in war, you are losing."