Another massive embarrassment for the Obama administration, as U.S. officials finally admitted on Friday—after days of strenuous denials—that the latest group of “moderate” New Syrian Force rebels surrendered at least some of their weapons and vehicles to al-Qaeda in exchange for “safe passage” into Syria.
“If accurate, the report of NSF members providing equipment to Al-Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines,” CNN quotes Col. Patrick Ryder of CENTCOM.
He was referring to reports from Syrian liaisons that the tiny force trained and equipped by the United States had given at least 25 percent of its gear to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise that destroyed the first wave of NSF troops.
“Central Command originally denied that the equipment had made its way to the jihadist group. Al-Nusra tweeted a photo of a rifle issued by U.S. coalition forces this week, but Central Command had determined that the picture was fake,” CNN reports. “But now the U.S. is learning from the rebels that six trucks and some of their ammunition was commandeered by Al-Nusra.”
The now-inoperative denials were stern and unequivocal. “All coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of New Syrian Force fighters,” a Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday.
“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,” Col. Ryder said on Friday, according to the L.A. Times. “We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response.”
There are even worse rumors coming out of Syria about the fate of the 71-man second wave of NSF recruits, including claims that the unit commander and at least some of his men have gone rogue or even defected to the Nusra Front. U.S. officials have denied these rumors as strongly as it denied that American weapons were given to al-Qaeda.
The hand-over of equipment to al-Nusra happened on Monday or Tuesday, while reports that the unit commander declared himself free of American control on his Facebook page began circulating Tuesday. The L.A. Times notes that on Friday, “the Pentagon would not disclose where the class of 71 was located.”