The size of the American-trained force fighting Islamic State militants in Syria roughly doubled this week and now totals nine fighters, a defense official said.
The Pentagon's Syria train-and-equip program was widely maligned this week after the head of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, testified on Capitol Hill that there were only "four or five" American-trained fighters in Syria.
On Friday, a CENTCOM official said that an additional team of four new fighters has recently entered Syria to join the fight.
"There is actually a total of nine now currently active in Syria," Air Force Col. Pat Ryder told reporters.
Moreover, there are another 11 fighters that have undergone the American-led training program and are officially members of the so-called New Syrian Forces, but are not yet in Syria.
"So 20 NSF fighters are part of the program," Ryder said.
Congress last year authorized the military to spend up to $500 million to train and equip a force of moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. Initially the goal was to train more than 5,000 fighters by the end of this year.
The initial batch of fighters was 54, but more than half are gone. Ryder provided an accounting of those 34 fighters who are no longer part of the U.S.-trained team:
- One fighter was most likely killed in action.
- One fighter is a captive of the al-Qaida affiliate known as al-Nusra.
- 18 of the fighters are probably in Syria but are missing, and "their whereabouts are unknown," Ryder said.
- 14 fighters quit the New Syrian Forces program and rejoined their original rebel groups.
The new equipment provided to the fighters, including small arms, pickup trucks and mounted artillery, is all accounted for despite the apparent desertions, Ryder said.
There are about 100 fighters who are in the American-run training pipeline in neighboring countries, Ryder said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.