Centcom: US did not train commander who gave al Qaeda weapons

Centcom: US did not train commander who gave al Qaeda weapons
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The Syrian rebel commander who handed over U.S. weapons to an al Qaeda affiliate was not trained by the United States and did so to secure safe passage for his group, officials are now saying.

Officials at first said that no weapons were given to al Nursa Front, but then later admitted about a quarter of the rebel group’s weapons were given to the enemy.

Last week, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) announced that about 70 U.S.-trained rebels had re-entered Syria through Turkey and joined the New Syrian Forces.

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Almost immediately after, reports began circulating on social media that some of the rebels had defected to al Qaeda and given up the U.S.-supplied weapons. Centcom initially said those reports were false.

But on Friday, Centcom admitted that a commander of a New Syrian Forces group gave six pickup trucks and some ammunition to al Nursa, which is an al Qaeda offshoot based in Syria.

On Monday, Col. Pat Ryder, a Centcom spokesman, told reporters that though some of the rebels the commander oversaw were trained by the United States, the commander himself did not participate in the U.S. training program. He and his group were vetted by the United States, Ryder said.

The commander had been contacted by a suspected al Nusra intermediary and told that he would be ambushed en route to a new location unless he surrendered some of his equipment, Ryder said.

The commander gave the intermediary the equipment as requested on Tuesday and told Centcom on Friday, Ryder said.

“We will look at what we can do to prevent such a situation in the future,” Ryder said. "But given the complexity of the battlefield it is not possible to eliminate all risk.”

The weapons incident is the latest embarrassment for the U.S. training program. It has been under fire since Centcom commander Gen. Lloyd Austin told a Senate committee only “four or five” of the original class of rebels remain in Syria.

Pentagon officials later upped that number to nine. But the original disclosure led lawmakers to call into question the efficacy of a program that cost $500 million and originally aimed to train 5,400 rebels by the end of the year.