In another embarrassing setback for one of President Barack Obama’s centerpiece strategies for defeating the Islamic State, the Pentagon said Friday that the commander of U.S.-trained Syrians appears to have turned over his pickup trucks and weapons to al Qaeda militants in exchange for protection within days of re-entering his homeland.
The Pentagon admission represented an abrupt reversal of its position as recently as Wednesday, when American military officials firmly denied social media reports that a U.S.-backed commander had defected to Nusra Front, Syria’s al Qaida affiliate, and provided trucks and weapons to the radical Islamic group.
“Unfortunately, we learned today that the New Syrian Force unit now says it did in fact provide six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected al-Nusra Front (representative),” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday evening.
Two days earlier, Davis had stated: “The folks that are part of the New Syrian Force are accounted for, as are their weapons.”
The new revelations angered American military leaders.
“If accurate, the report of New Syrian Force members providing equipment to al Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train-and-equip program guidelines,” said Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, chief spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which runs American military operations in the Middle East.
People claiming to be Nusra members or supporters had posted online photographs of what they said were U.S. weapons handed over to them by the pro-American Syrians, but Davis had dismissed the pictures, saying they were old images that had been “re-purposed.”
On Friday, the Pentagon was forced to backtrack.
“We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response,” Ryder said.
The distressing episode was the most recent in a series of perplexing problems for a program that Obama had heralded as a key response to Islamic State territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, and one for which Congress appropriated $500 million last December.
Following several months of training in Turkey by U.S. special forces, the first group of Syrian fighters was dispatched back into the country in late July, only to be ambushed by Nusra combatants July 31, with some of them fleeing and others being killed, wounded or captured.
Then, too, the Pentagon denied initial reports of problems but later changed course.
However the Pentagon decides to respond to the new setback, senators from both parties already castigated the Syria train-and-equip program, casting doubt on its future viability.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, called the program “a failure;” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, labeled it “ a joke.”
Other lawmakers and analysts have criticized virtually every aspect of the training program, from how Syrian candidates are vetted to how they are trained and whether the U.S.-led air campaign provides sufficient protection once the American-trained troops are back in their homeland.
Pentagon officials in recent weeks have acknowledged past errors and said that the train-and-equip program is being re-evaluated.
“There were some mistakes made, initially, with the first class,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said. “I think they've been documented pretty well”
Regarding the second class of New Syrian Force fighters who entered the country Saturday and future U.S.-trained troops, Cook said that “we’re doing what we can to provide support for these forces as they go back into Syria.”
At a more recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, on Tuesday, retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commended American and allied forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the training program should be completely overhauled. He advocated allowing the U.S.-backed Syrians to take on soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad and creating “safe zones” in Syria protected by American special forces, two ideas that the Pentagon and the White House have repeatedly rejected.
The new controversy with the train-and-equip program was sparked by a series of Facebook and Twitter posts on Tuesday.
On a Facebook page claiming to belong to Maj. Anas Obaid, commander of a Syrian military unit called Division 30, Abu Zayd (his battlefield name) said that he and some of his men had severed ties with the U.S. program and were going to fight the Islamic State on their own.
“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we, the grouping of revolutionaries of Atareb and its countryside, announce that we are outside Division 30 infantry and we are an independent faction working on the Syrian lands in isolation from coordination with the international (U.S.-led) coalition.”
In a separate Facebook post purporting to belong to Division 30, unidentified posters said they had lost contact with Abu Zayd, could not confirm that he had defected to Nusra and vowed to “submit him to the military court on charges of high treason” if he is found to have joined the al Qaida group.
Yet still another source, claiming to be a Dutch member of Nusra, told The Daily Beast, an online American news outlet, that Abu Zayd had been arrested by Nusra and had offered to give the al Qaida group his vehicles and weapons in exchange for his release and protection.
“He spoke out against the U.S. and will fight against the Assad regime despite his deal with the U.S. (not to combat Assad forces),” the Dutchman allegedly said.
There was still more chatter and conflicting information on Twitter.
A man who called himself Abu Fahd al-Tunisi and said he was a Nusra member tweeted that the claimed defections and weapons handover from the second class of New Syrian Force fighters was another blow to the United States.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose