A Democratic senator is calling for the administration to suspend its program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, after news that one of the rebels handed over equipment to al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.
After initial denials last week that any of the approximately 70 in the second class of rebels had handed over their equipment, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) admitted on Friday that the unit had handed over six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition.
"I am grateful for the work that has been put into trying to make this program successful," said Murphy, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.
“But for those of us who opposed the Syria train and equip program from the start, our predictions that our assistance would end up aiding mortal enemies of the U.S. like al Qaeda are now coming true," Murphy said.
The incident was a second major embarrassment for the program, after the first group of 54 rebels disintegrated upon reentering Syria in July. Al Nusra Front had killed at least one member of the class and kidnapped others.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Centcom, admitted during a recent hearing that only "four or five" were left, although the Pentagon later revised that to nine.
Murphy said the latest news was "disturbing" and that the U.S. should suspend the program to make sure it does not become a means of supplying extremist groups with American weapons and equipment.
“Empowering al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria would be a disastrous side effect of the Syrian train and equip program. The only thing worse than Bashar al-Assad staying in power is for him to be replaced by an al Qaeda backed regime," he said.
"This news is confirmation that U.S. policy may unwittingly be furthering this catastrophic endgame.”
The administration announced the creation of the program last year, which seeks to create a ground force to take on ISIS and supersede the need to send in U.S. forces. Congress authorized the program in September and provided $500 million for the program in December.
The initial goal was to train 5,400 by the year's end, but Austin said that goal would "clearly" not be attainable. The administration has requested $600 million for the program in 2016.