WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to be the next U.S. commander for the Middle East told lawmakers that he supports moving forward with a revised effort to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels battling Islamic State militants.
In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Joseph Votel described the new approach as a "thickening effort" as opposed to a decisive way of raising a large force.
"But I do think it is helpful to have people who have been trained by us, who have the techniques, who have the communications capability and the resources to link back into our firepower," Votel said. The trained fighters, Votel added, present the Islamic State with added "dilemmas."
The Obama administration last year scrapped a beleaguered $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State after military leaders told Congress that only four or five trained fighters were battling the militants — significantly short of the U.S. goal to train 5,000. About 50 new fighters had been captured, wounded or fled in their first encounter with extremist militants.
The only U.S. ground forces in Syria are a contingent of roughly 50 special operations troops who deployed last year to work with local Syrian fighters trying to break the Islamic State's grip on Raqqa, the group's self-declared capital.
If confirmed, Votel would take over leadership of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria. He would succeed Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is retiring.
Votel, 57, is a former commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He headed the secretive Joint Special Operations Command before taking over U.S. Special Operations Command in 2014.
Army Lt. Gen. Tony Thomas has been nominated to replace Votel at Special Operations Command.