U.S.-trained fighters give enemy gear
WASHINGTON — American-trained Syrian fighters gave at least a quarter of their U.S.-provided equipment to al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria early this week, the U.S. Central Command said late Friday.
In a statement correcting earlier assertions that reports of the turnover were a “lie” and militant propaganda, the command said it was subsequently notified that the Syrian unit had “surrendered” some equipment — including six pickup trucks and a portion of its ammunition — to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's arm in Syria.
It is the latest discouraging report on the $500 million train-and-equip program, which Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, said last week had only “four or five” trained Syrian fighters active in Syria. Since then, the military has said about 70 fighters have been added.
The Centcom statement called the new information on the equipment, “if accurate ... very concerning and a violation of the Syria train and equip program guidelines.”
It said the equipment had been turned over voluntarily, adding that the New Syrian Force had indicated that it “gave” the equipment to a suspected Jabhat al-Nusra “intermediary” Monday and Tuesday.
The statement said initial reports that the weapons had been turned over stemmed from a Jabhat al-Nusra tweet of an image of a U.S.-issued rifle that it claimed had been handed over by U.S.-trained Syrians who entered the country last week. “Central Command conducted an analysis of the image ... and determined the claim to be false,” the statement said.
That determination, it said, was based on assurances from the Syrian force that all issued equipment was under its control and “because the tweeted image was an old picture repurposed from the Facebook page of a previously deployed fighter.”
But “in light of this new information,” said a Central Command spokesman, Col. Patrick Ryder, “we wanted to ensure the public was informed as quickly as possible about the facts as we know them at this time.”
“We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response,” Ryder said.
A military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide more details, said the initial assurances about the weapons came from the deputy commander of the unit. It was the unit leader who surrendered the equipment and who contacted the U.S. military with the correct information Friday, the official said.
In the toxic and chaotic Syrian mix, Jabhat al-Nusra and many Syrian rebels are fighting a separate war from the one being waged by the United States against the Islamic State. Their main goal is the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. military vetters have had a hard time finding approved Syrians to train who are also willing to pledge to direct their focus toward the Islamic State rather than Assad.