The Pentagon is firmly denying social media reports that a new group of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters who recently reentered their country to combat the Islamic State have defected to the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s main affiliate in Syria.
The reports of defections were the most recent in a string of problems that have plagued the $500 million program to train moderate Syrians to take on Islamic State militants, who control at least one-quarter of the war-torn country. The alleged defections follow the July 31 ambush by Nusra of an earlier group of Syrians who’d been dispatched to the battlefield after months of training in Turkey by U.S. special forces.
Cpt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, on Wednesday rejected reports of defections from among what the United States calls the New Syrian Force. He also dismissed assertions that were circulated on Facebook and Twitter that the commander of a Syrian rebel unit called Division 30, with which some of the U.S.-trained fighters have been embedded, had handed over to Nusra a large cache of weapons in exchange for a pledge of protection.
“It’s patently false that there have been defections or weapons turned over by them, and we believe the claims to those effect to be untrue,” Davis said. “The folks that are part of the New Syrian Force are accounted for, as are their weapons.”
Davis dismissed photographs on websites claiming to belong to Nusra members or supporters that purported to show Nusra fighters with weapons seized from the U.S.-trained Syrians.
“The photos seen in some of these social media postings appear to have been re-purposed in some way,” Davis told reporters at a briefing, suggesting that they were not recent or had been altered.
In a separate statement, the U.S. Central Command, which runs American military operations in the Middle East, said that “all Coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of New Syrian Force fighters.”
The credibility of the Pentagon regarding the United States’ controversial train-and-equip program, however, has suffered in recent months because of shifting statements about the initiative, for which Congress appropriated $500 million this year.
After the first class of some 54 U.S.-trained fighters re-entered Syria in late July, reports soon surfaced that they had been ambushed by Nusra militants July 31, and that the American-backed troops had fled Syria for Turkey or been captured or killed by Nusra.
It’s patently false that there have been defections or weapons turned over by them, and we believe the claims to those effect to be untrue.
Navy Cpt. Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman
The Pentagon initially denied that Nusra had ambushed New Syrian Force troops, but it reversed course after several days and acknowledged the attack.
For weeks, the Pentagon also declined to provide details on the disposition of the ambushed fighters until Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Central Command spokesman, provided some figures last week: one member of the first class of U.S.-trained Syrian was killed in the Nusra attack; one was being held captive; nine are back on the battlefield; 11 left Syria; 14 remain in Syria but have quit the American program, and the whereabouts of 18 is unknown.
Yet that accounting created still more confusion. At an acrimonious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, prompted expressions of disbelief when he said that only “four or five” fighters from the first class of the New Syrian Force were on the battlefield; two days later, Ryder placed that figure at nine.
A broad range of lawmakers and analysts have criticized virtually every aspect of the training program, from how Syrian candidates are vetted to how they trained and whether the U.S.-led air campaign provides sufficient protection once the American-trained troops are back in their homeland.
At the Senate committee hearing Sept. 16, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, called the program “a failure,” while Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, ridiculed it as “a joke.”
Pentagon officials in recent weeks have said that every aspect of the train-and-equip program is being re-evaluated and acknowledged past errors.
“There were some mistakes made, initially, with the first class,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Tuesday. “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.”
Approximately 70 graduatesU.S. Central Command number for how many members from second class of U.S.-trained Syrians have re-entered their country
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.
“A strong slap for America,” he tweeted. “The new group from Division 30 that entered yesterday hands over all of its weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra after being granted safe passage.”
He added: “They handed over a very large amount of ammunition and medium (powered) weaponry and a number of (truck) pickups.”
In addition to casting doubt on the various social media reports, Davis pushed back against specific characterizations linking the Division 30 unit with the U.S.-led coalition.
Davis said that some New Syrian Force troops came from Division 30 and had been placed back with the unit, but that other American trainees were being embedded with separate Syrian fighting groups.
“Division 30 does not equal New Syrian Force,” Davis said.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose