A spokesman for the United States military confirmed that U.S. trained Syrian rebels gave their equipment to the al-Qaeda supported terror group Al-Nusra Front in exchange for safe passage. The latest blow to a Pentagon program that has been plagued by problems since its inception. The rebels surrendered six pickup trucks and ammunition to a Nusra Front “middle man”, according to a Pentagon statement. The equipment was about one-quarter of what the group had been issued. The allegations, if true, would be “a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines,” Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in the statement.
U.S. Central Command spokesperson Col. Patrick Ryder said that if the report from the New Syrian Forces is accurate, it is “very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines.” Pentagon officials initially denied media reports this week that the U.S.-backed rebels had turned over arms or equipment to the al-Qaeda affiliate. But on Friday they learned some of the allegations were true after U.S. backed rebels acknowledged it.
The plan is part of an effort to vet Syrian rebels to form a ground force to combat the Islamic State. The rebels would be trained by U.S. advisers in locations outside the country and then inserted back into Syria. The initial plan called for training more than 5,000 rebels per year. It hasn’t met expectations. The first group of about 50 fighters entered Syria in July but came under immediate attack. Most of the initial force disbursed or was killed, leaving only a handful to fight.
Gen. Lloyd Austin acknowledged that the program, which began training in May, is slower than anticipated. The Pentagon has said it is examining other options for building a ground force in Syria to combat the Islamic State. Central Command also said that the rebel group told them all equipment was accounted for and there were no defections. The rebel group has not reported any defections, the Pentagon said.’
In light of this new information, we wanted to ensure the public was informed as quickly as possible about the facts as we know them at this time,” Ryder said. “We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response.”
The program has thus far generated only two classes of coalition-trained fighters in Syria: The class of 71, who turned over its weapons, and an initial class of 54 who were ambushed by Al Nusra Front. The Pentagon would not disclose where the class of 71 was located. Of the ambushed class, the military said nine fighters have since returned to Syria, 14 returned to Syria but quit the program, 11 left Syria altogether and 18 are missing. Of the remaining two, one was killed and the other was captured by Al Nusra Front.
Meanwhile, Al Nusra Front supporters uploaded a picture of assault rifles reportedly taken from the rebels. At the time, Central Command said it determined the claim to be false because it conducted “an analysis” of the image and “the tweeted image was an old picture repurposed from” a rebel Facebook page. US Central Command confirmed about 70 graduates of the Syria “train and equip” programme had re-entered Syria with their weapons and equipment and were operating as New Syrian Forces alongside Syrian Kurds, Sunni Arab and other anti-Isil forces.