The Pentagon on Monday sought to play down the significance of reports that two moderate Syrian rebel groups, armed by the United States, had surrendered to an al Qaeda affiliate.
"There are battles all the time between these various groups, and territory trades hands in these local areas regularly," Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said.
Warren was speaking following reports that rebels with the two groups, the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Harakat Haz, had surrendered to the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. There are also reports that some fighters have pledged allegiance to the group.
The development would be a setback for the United States plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel forces to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), since the Nusra Front sees the Syrian regime, not ISIS, as its primary enemy.
It could also expose the dangers of arming supposedly moderate Syrian rebels, if those weapons end up falling into radical Islamist hands. The United States has reportedly armed both groups with heavy weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles and GRAD rockets. Some of that weaponry may now belong to the Nusra Front.
Amid additional speculation that some of the rebels had actually joined the Nusra Front, Warren said that this would clearly disqualify them from being considered moderates.
"If they join the Nusra Front, the Nusra Front is not a moderate organization. So therefore they are not moderate either," Warren said.
The United States plans to recruit at least 5,000 Syrian rebels, but it has not yet begun training or equipping those forces. They are not expected to be ready until next summer or fall.
"We're certainly concerned anytime we see personnel joining a radical organization. And so this is something we will continue to watch, and continue to execute our strategy that we've got in place now," Warren said.
But Warren cautioned against jumping to premature conclusions or exaggerating the importance of the development.
"Often these battles and this trading of territory is talked about in exaggerated terms for various reasons, but right now we haven't seen any indications of anything big or catastrophic. But I will say it could take several days before we get a real picture," he said."