Pentagon denies allegations US-trained New Syrian Forces defected

In this file image posted on a Twitter account of Syria's al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, a tank from the Nusra Front fires during their clashes against the Syrian government forces at the western Zahra neighborhood in Aleppo city, Syria. A group of U.S.-trained rebels that recently returned to Syria said Wednesday it has lost contact with one of its officer but is investigating reports that it has defected and handed over his weapons to al-Qaida affiliate in the country.


By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 23, 2015

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Wednesday emphatically denied allegations that any recent graduates of its much-criticized train-and-equip program to combat the Islamic State in Syria had defected or that weaponry it supplied them had fallen into the hands of an al-Qaida affiliate.

The Associated Press and other media reported earlier Wednesday that U.S.-aligned moderate rebel group Division 30 had launched an investigation into the disappearance of one of its commanding officers, Anas Ibrahim Abu Zayed. Additionally, the AP report stated, the group was investigating social media reports that some of the 70 recent New Syrian Forces program graduates who were reinserted into the war in Syria over the weekend had handed over U.S.-provided weaponry to Nusra Front.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department was in contact with the  70 fighters — the second group of graduates to return to the battlefield following U.S.-led training.

“It’s patently false that there have been New Syrian Forces defections or weapons turned over to Al Nusra Front,” Davis said. “… The folks that are part of the New Syrian Forces are all accounted for, as are their weapons.”

Abu Zayed, according to the AP, posted on social media that he had left Division 30 and would no longer support coalition anti-Islamic State efforts. Davis said he could not provide specifics on Division 30 fighters, who unlike the New Syrian Forces, are not all part of the train-and-equip program. New Syrian Forces, who have embedded with Division 30, are vetted by the U.S. and vow to only fight the Islamic State.

The reports come after U.S. lawmakers last week criticized the Pentagon’s $500 million program that once aimed to train 5,400 rebel fighters. Sen. Jeff Session, R-Ala., said the program was “a total failure.”

To date, only 124 fighters have been trained and reinserted into Syria. The first group of 54 New Syrian Forces was largely disbanded following an attack by Nusra. U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder last week said only nine of the initial group remain fighting in Syria as part of the program. One was killed in the attack and one is being held captive by Nusra. Fourteen have left the program but are fighting with other moderate rebel groups and 18 are unaccounted for. Ryder said 11 additional fighters remain in the program but outside Syria. The weapons provided to each of those 54, including the 18 missing in action, are all accounted for, he added.

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC