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Former ‘Moderate’ Syrian Rebel Leader: U.S. Equipment Went to Al-Qaeda

Islamic fighters from the al-Qaida group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front, wave their movement's flag as they parade at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, to denounce Israels military offensive on the Gaza Strip, on July 28, 2014. Israeli shells struck a UN school in Gaza early today, …
RAMI AL-SAYED/AFP/Getty Images

Former Syrian rebel officer Maj. Anas Ibrahim Obaid told Fox News in an interview published on Wednesday that weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment sent to “moderate” rebel forces in Syria were given to al-Qaeda terrorists instead.

Obaid, who fought on the battlefields of Syria under the name “Abu Zayd,” was involved in the final humiliating collapse of the Obama administration’s $500 million program to train and equip a white-hat force of “moderate” rebels who were supposed to forget about rebelling against dictator Bashar Assad and fight the Islamic State and al-Qaeda instead. The program was such an unmitigated disaster that even Democrats leveled scathing criticisms before the plug was pulled in September 2015.

Even if the recruitment and training phases of this initiative had worked perfectly, the moderate force was so absurdly small that it stood no chance against the Islamist militias in Syria. According to Abu Zayd, the whole thing was a farce from beginning to end:

He claimed the main prerequisite for inclusion in the program was proof of association with a group that had fought ISIS, the Islamic State. That was followed by a few basic questions, like, “With which faction did you fight?” and “What do you think about ISIS?”

After undergoing training in Turkey, the first batch of 54 trained fighters crossed back to Syria in July 2015 – only to be almost instantly ambushed by Al Nusra militants. Several of the men were kidnapped, and their U.S.-issued weapons were stolen.

Zayd said he was part of a second group to be sent into Syria — this time without proper firepower.

The U.S. trainers “wanted us to go into Syria without weapons because of the ambush, and said we could get the weapons inside instead. This was crazy,” Zayd recalled. “We refused.”

The weapons issue was worked out, and the rebels eventually started their journey back to Syria on Sept. 19. But Turkish border guards found something else in their bags: Syrian regime flags, rather than the flags of the opposition group the fighters were being sent to support.

Zayd said fighters charged back to their base in Turkey, demanding answers. U.S trainers took responsibility for the “flag mistake,” Zayd said, and the following day the rebels continued back to Syria.

They did not get far, as Zayd reports defections began immediately. His already tiny unit shrank from 72 to just 25 men before he himself decided to call it quits and resume fighting the Syrian regime in Aleppo. Unfortunately, that meant traveling through territory controlled by al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. Luckily for Zayd, the Obama administration had provided him with a cache of American weapons, ammo, and vehicles he could trade to the terrorists for safe passage, so that is what he did.

“I communicated with Al Qaeda’s branch, Al Nusra, to protect and safely escort me and my soldiers for two hours from North Aleppo to West Aleppo. In exchange, I gave them five pickup trucks and ammunition,” he recalled.

Zayd established his bona fides by giving the Fox News team a Skype tour of his home near Aleppo, showing off a stash of American weapons and ammunition – including heavy weapons and mortar rounds – he reportedly sells on the black market for a tidy profit.

“The Americans were so angry when they found out, they cut my salary, but this was our only option through their territory to get home without getting killed,” he said of his betrayal.

Zayd said the program was terminated about a month later. “I got many messages the Americans do not want to deal with me anymore. But they can’t get their weapons back,” he said.

His story is consistent with rumors swirling in 2015 that most of Obama’s “New Syrian Force” had been killed, captured, or recruited by the Nusra Front, and much of their equipment ended up in terrorist hands. U.S. Central Command reported hearing a story in September 2015 identical to the one told by Zayd and said it would be “very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines” if accurate.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin mocked Obama at the United Nations by saying of his “moderate” militia, “First they are armed and trained, and then they defect.” He was evidently wrong about who they were defecting to, though. Putin said it was the Islamic State, while Zayd’s group mostly went over to al-Qaeda in his account. The Nusra Front itself claimed at the time that Obama’s force had largely surrendered to it and handed over their weapons.

Fox News quoted a number of other Syrian opposition fighters who told similar stories about American military equipment falling into the clutches of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Some complained they were sent just enough weapons to make them inviting targets for Islamist raids, but not enough to defend themselves, especially since they were trying to fight the Syrian military at the same time. Powerful TOW anti-tank missiles were among the weapons seized by extremists and occasionally sold on the black market.

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