The troubled U.S. train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels suffered another setback this week amid conflicting reports that members of the latest contingent sent into the war-torn country have gone rogue and may have defected to an al-Qaida affiliate.
Many of the recruits from the 75-member contingent came from the insurgent militia Division 30, which agreed to a nonaggression pact with the affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, after some other train-and-equip graduates were kidnapped by jihadists soon after they entered Syria from Turkey.
U.S. officials said they could not confirm the defections reported in a Facebook posting Tuesday by one of the contingent’s leaders, Major Anas Obaid, also known as Abu Zayd.
Division 30 commanders said they were unable to confirm the defection, but admitted they had no contact with Obaid, who was believed to be near Aleppo. In a later statement, they distanced themselves from the al-Qaida affiliate, saying, “We, the Division 30 Command, deny categorically any contact with al-Nusra Front."
The train-and-equip program has been plagued by problems, according to analysts and U.S. lawmakers, since it was announced last year as part of Washington’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State group by using indigenous forces. Congress allocated $500 million with the aim of training as many as 15,000 ideologically moderate fighters to combat the Islamic State group in Syria.
American lawmakers have fumed at its slow pace, and President Barack Obama voiced his frustration with the program in July, saying, “I have made it clear to my team that we will do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria.”
In July, al-Nusra abducted a commander and seven fighters from the program’s first graduates just days after they deployed in Syria, following training in Turkey. The unraveling of the first contingent prompted an outcry on Capitol Hill, and last week senior administration officials defended the program before skeptical lawmakers.
General Lloyd Austin, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that no more than five U.S.-trained Syrian fighters were left from the initial graduates. He acknowledged the program might be overhauled.
And Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy, testified there were “between 100 and 120” additional fighters being trained in Turkey.
On Tuesday, just before the allegations emerged of the possible unraveling of the second contingent, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters that some of the “lessons learned” from the first class were “instilled" into the training process of the new trainees.
Syrian rebel commanders, who have been loath to volunteer men for the program, say the two biggest problems with the mission are how tightly Washington defines “moderate” and the Obama administration’s insistence that the train-and-equip force can be used only against Islamic State extremists and not against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
The rebel fighters say Assad is responsible for many more deaths in Syria than the jihadists.
“I told them from the start I wouldn’t offer one man as long as the force was only going after Daesh,” a rebel commander using the Arab acronym for IS told VOA. He said he could see no purpose in weakening his forces, who are mainly fighting Assad’s army, to take on the Islamic State group.
The al-Nusra Front, a rival to the Islamic State group, has targeted U.S.-backed rebels in Syria. Last year, it routed two rebel militias, the Syria Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm Movement.
Pentagon officials say 1,500 volunteers are waiting for the vetting process to join train-and-equip.
Rebel leaders' criticism
The vetting process has also come under attack from Syrian rebel commanders. Ammar al-Wawi of Division 30 told The Daily Beast that Obaid’s defection was also a strong possibility.
"There was also a request from the overall commander of Division 30 to suspend [Abu Zayd] before he completed his training, because we had information that this was going to happen, but those in charge of the program refused to suspend him,” he said.
The train-and-equip program isn’t the only complication facing the U.S.-led coalition in shaping and directing indigenous forces in northern Syria. Western-backed Kurdish fighters are now threatening to break a deal that would keep them east of the Euphrates in order to protect a Kurdish enclave on the Turkish border, a move that would infuriate Ankara.
Last month, Turkish authorities said they had reached an understanding that Kurdish defense forces the United States has been coordinating with can’t cross west of the Euphrates or assist to protect a proposed buffer zone in northern Syria.