U.S.-trained rebels in Syria handed over American-supplied vehicles and ammunition to an al-Qaeda linked group, the Pentagon said Friday in the latest blow to a program plagued by problems since its inception.
The rebels surrendered six pickups and ammunition to an “intermediary” for the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front in Syria, the Pentagon said in a statement. The equipment was about a quarter of what the rebels were issued and was turned over in exchange for safe passage through an area controlled by the Nusra Front.
The allegations, if true, would be “a violation of Syria train-and-equip program guidelines,” Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in the statement.
The program is part of an effort to vet Syrian rebels to form a ground force to combat the Islamic State. The rebels are trained by U.S. advisers in locations outside the country and then inserted back into Syria.
Pentagon officials initially denied media reports this week that the U.S.-backed rebels had turned over arms or equipment to the al-Qaeda affiliate. But on Friday they learned some of the allegations were true after the rebels acknowledged it.
“We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response,” Ryder said.
The U.S. military said 70 rebels entered Syria on Monday to fight the Islamic State. They handed over the equipment almost immediately after entering the country.
The initial plan called for training more than 5,000 rebels per year. It hasn’t met expectations. The first group of about 50 fighters entered Syria in July but came under immediate attack. Most of the initial force disbursed or was killed, leaving only a handful to fight.
In recent testimony, Gen. Lloyd Austin acknowledged the program, which began training in May, is moving slower than anticipated. The Pentagon has said it is examining other options for building a ground force in Syria to combat the Islamic State.