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U.S. Grapples With Two New Setbacks In Syrian Civil War


The Obama administration finds itself grappling with two new setbacks concerning the Civil War in Syria. Russia has escalated its military aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who the U.S. has been trying to edge out of power. And separately, it emerged this week that the U.S. program to train thousands of Syrian rebels has failed. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now, and, Tom, about that training - we had a top general this week said after months of effort and millions of dollars spent, the U.S. has only trained four or five rebels on the ground in Syria. What happened?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the first batch of American-trained rebels - 54 of them were attacked by more radical rebels once they got inside Syria. Some were captured, others scattered, and that left only a handful fighting. And Democrats and Republicans on the Hill have been highly critical of this program. Another problem with all of this is vetting or screening these volunteers. And that takes a lot of time. You have to figure out who's a radical, who's a criminal, which people have medical problems. And I'm also told that quite a few of these volunteers were 16 years old or younger, and they have to be at least 18. That was a particular problem. Still, another problem - a lot of these rebels did not want to fight ISIS. Their whole reason for being there was to fight the Assad regime.

CORNISH: Is the training program over now? Do U.S. officials plan to keep it going?

BOWMAN: They do plan to keep it going. They say there are a few hundred more in the pipeline. And they're also looking at a parallel effort where they would train what they call enablers, people who could call in airstrikes, people who could gather intelligence but not necessarily fight. So they're still keeping this effort going.

CORNISH: You've also reported today that things have become more complicated with Russian involvement. Tell us what happened.

BOWMAN: Well, the Russians already sent in tanks and armored vehicles, as we all know, to a new base in western Syria along the Mediterranean. Now today, the U.S. revealed that Russia has sent four fighter jets in along with some attack helicopters to reinforce the Assad regime. And they're saying that more aircraft will likely be sent. That - remember, of course, the U.S. already is flying bombing runs over Syria, so the concern now is how do you deconflict - stay out of each other's way. That's what they're working on now. They could set up zones where the Russians bomb here, the U.S. bombs there or you just communicate better with the pilots doing the bombing runs as far as deconflicting.

But the big concern is this. Will the Russians start hitting the rebels the U.S. is supporting - those who want the Assad regime gone and the U.S. hopes that could be part of any future government? So that's really the big concern right now - and how will the U.S. respond if Russia starts hitting those moderate rebels.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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