The Pentagon on Wednesday denied reports that the latest batch of U.S.-trained rebels in Syria had defected and joined al-Qaeda, as officials sought to dispel suggestions of further setbacks for the troubled effort to build an effective local force against the Islamic State.
Earlier this week, shortly after a group of 71 U.S.-trained rebels returned to Syria after completing an American training course in Turkey, one of the commanders said to be with the group issued a statement dissociating the fighters from the Pentagon program and saying that it would operate as an “independent faction.”
The statement triggered rumors that the group had defected to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, fueled by photographs posted on social media by Jabhat al-Nusra purportedly showing U.S. weapons that had been handed over by the Pentagon graduates.
The new reports came as U.S. officials search for ways to retool the Pentagon’s $500 million training program, which was supposed to prepare a reliable, moderate force to combat the Islamic State, but which has come to symbolize the shortcomings of the Obama administration’s handling of Syria’s protected civil conflict.
At the Pentagon, Capt. Jeff Davis, a military spokesman, said that U.S. officials were in touch with members of the U.S.-trained group, referred to as the New Syrian Force (NSF), and said reports that the fighters had joined Jabhat al-Nusra were false.
“We have no information at all to suggest that that’s true,” Davis told reporters. He said photos posted by Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated Twitter accounts, which purported to show American weaponry provided by those fighters, had been “repurposed.”
U.S. Central Command, which oversees the training program, took the unusual step of issuing a statement to rebut the reports. “All coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters,” the statement said.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Missy Ryan and Liz Sly