UPDATED: Pentagon admits US-trained Syrian rebels joined al-Qaeda

Jabhat al-NusraAfter issuing successive denials earlier in the week, United States officials have now confirmed reports that a group of Syrian rebels trained by the American military surrendered to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria almost as soon as they were deployed there from bases in Turkey. Early this week, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that 71 fighters calling themselves the New Syrian Force (NSF) had entered Syria to fight the Islamic State. The NSF group is part of a larger force calling itself Division 30, which consists of what Washington calls “moderate” Syrian rebels that have US support. Around two hundred fighters have been trained in Turkey by the US Pentagon under a $500 million program aimed to build a 5,400-strong rebel force to combat the Islamic State, which today controls much of Syria and Iraq.

But soon after the NSF group entered Syrian territory, a man claiming to be its commander issued a statement saying his group of rebels had denounced the US and broken off from Division 30. Major Anais Ibrahim Obaid, more commonly known as Abu Zayd, said in his statement that the NSF would continue to fight the Islamic State, but would do so independently. Shortly afterwards, a statement from Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as al-Nusra Front), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, claimed that Major Obaid and his men had surrendered their weapons to them. According to the statement, issued by Jabhat al-Nusra commander Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, the NSF had surrendered its ammunition, weaponry and several pick-up trucks in exchange for safe passage though al-Nusra-controlled territory. He also claimed that Major Obaid had said he had tricked his American trainers in order to receive weapons from them.

On Wednesday, the US Department of Defense had rejected claims that the NSF had surrendered to al-Qaeda. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that the US had “no information to suggest that [such claims were] true”. A brief statement issued by CENTCOM insisted that “all coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters”. No further information on the matter has been released by the US government. On Friday, however, a Pentagon spokesman admitted that “the NSF unit now says it did in fact provide six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected al-Nusra Front” group.

This development marks the second major setback for Division 30 in recent months. In August, when the group sent its first team of 54 fighters to Syria, al-Nusra forces quickly attacked and kidnapped many of them. Last week, CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin told the US Congress that the Division 30 training program had only managed to produce around 200 fighters, a far cry from its intended 5,400. Of those, said General Austin, only about a handful were still active inside Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2015 | Permalink

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