Pentagon to deploy 400 troops to train Syrian rebels

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military is planning to send more than 400 soldiers to train Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State along with hundreds of U.S. support personnel, a Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday. The training mission is expected to begin in the spring at sites outside Syria, Colonel Steve Warren said. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have offered to host the training. The Syrian state news agency SANA said the plan showed Washington was "continuing to support terrorism in Syria". Syria's government describes all of its armed opponents as terrorists. The training program is a part of U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to field local forces in Syria to halt and eventually roll back Islamic State fighters, while pounding them with airstrikes. But the insurgency in Syria is now dominated by hardline Sunni Islamists, including both Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, complicating U.S. measures to find a suitable ally on the ground. Warren did not offer additional details on the troop figures. The Pentagon has estimated that it can train more than 5,000 recruits in the first year under a $500 million program, and that up to 15,000 will be needed to retake areas of eastern Syria controlled by Islamic State. Critics in Congress have said the Pentagon program will not aid Syrian opposition forces fast enough, however, and question whether it is too small to influence the course of Syria's civil war, which pits President Bashar al-Assad's government against an array of opponents. Across the border in Iraq, Obama has authorized more than 3,000 U.S. troops to advise and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The disclosure of the planned troop deployments for the Syria training mission followed a meeting between senior U.S. officials and Syrian opposition and civil society leaders in Istanbul. "These introductory meetings were an important step as we prepare to launch the train-and-equip program later this spring with our international partners," Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Editing by Angus MacSwan)