Syrian rebels trained by the United States gave some of their equipment to an Al-Qaeda-linked group in exchange for safe passage, a U.S. military spokesman said, the latest blow to a troubled U.S. effort to train local partners to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
U.S. Central Command said late Friday that roughly 25 percent of the equipment assigned to the Syrian rebel unit was given to Nusra Front earlier this week in exchange for safe passage within the region. U.S. officials said the Syrians continue to insist that they have not relinquished any weapons to the group and that all of their personnel are accounted for.
Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said the command is looking into the incident. But the report contradicts information the Defense Department provided earlier in the day, which said reports of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels defecting and missing equipment going to Nusra Front were incorrect.
Ryder said the Syrians had told the U.S. earlier Friday that no equipment or people were missing, but the U.S. later discovered some of those assertions were incorrect. He said providing equipment to Nusra Front is a violation of the training and equipping program.
"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," Ryder said. "We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response."
The commander who turned the equipment over to Nusra Front was one of about 70 rebel fighters who were in the second U.S. training course. He had only recently returned to Syria to fight ISIL.
The training program has been criticized as offering too little too late and failing to provide enough protection for those trained rebels once back inside Syria. The selected rebels are said to undergo a thorough vetting process to ensure they focus on the fight against ISIL.
U.S. officials have begun an overhaul of the effort, including suggesting that the newly trained fighters operate as the New Syrian Forces, or NSF, alongside Syrian Kurds, Sunni Arab and other anti-ISIL forces.
The first batch of about 54 trainees has largely disbanded. Only 11 remain available to fight, but are not in Syria.