The U.S. military will concede on Monday that, once again, it misspoke when trying to clarify what happened to scores of U.S.-trained fighters who entered Syria this month. And it’s increasingly obvious that the befuddlement in Washington reflects what is even worse confusion on the ground.
The Pentagon, responding to reports in The Daily Beast that a specific U.S.-trained commander had defected along with most of his unit to a group affiliated with al Qaeda, will now concede that an unnamed commander who actually had been rejected by the U.S. as a possible trainee for the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State had somehow acquired access to U.S. equipment that he then handed over to al Qaeda affiliates.
Right. This was the latest admission by the military in a weeklong back-and-forth with The Daily Beast over the fate of some of the 71 U.S.-trained fighters who entered Syria for the first time on September 19. But we’re still just inching toward a full-on admission of how screwed up things really are.
That the U.S. could not account for its personnel or equipment, and that statements by jihadist groups to journalists proved necessary to determine the fate of both, suggests the very opaque nature of the U.S effort on Syria, where no one—or at least no one connected to Washington—has a clear picture of the fight.
It’s been more than a year since the U.S. launched an air campaign against ISIS, hoping it could depend on locally recruited troops trained by U.S. advisers to take the war to the enemy on the ground. But even as U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown thousands of sorties through Iraqi and Syrian skies, that train-and-equip mission has failed to get off the ground.
The Daily Beast learned that, two days after the latest little contingent of U.S.-trained forces entered Syria, a commander named Anas Ibrahim Obaid, known as Abu Zayd, linked up with them, and handed over their U.S.-supplied equipment to Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria.
The U.S military originally said that it could account for “100 percent” of the equipment provided to U.S. trainees, before admitting Friday that indeed some of equipment had ended up Nusra hands, as The Daily Beasts first reported.
The U.S. military also conceded last week that six vehicles and an untold amount of ammunition ended up in the hands of Nusra after, as the Pentagon put it, a U.S.-trained Syrian force commander gave up the equipment in exchange for safe passage. The Pentagon, at that point, ruled out Abu Zayd as the possible link behind the equipment ending up in Nusra hands, insisting he was only vetted by the U.S. military, but had never received U.S. training, ergo, he couldn’t be the guy who gave up all that stuff.
As it turns out, that was not quite correct either.
Last week, The Daily Beast acquired video of Obaid with U.S. trainees entering the Syrian city of Atareb. Abu Zayd’s appearance alongside U.S.-trained troops suggested that the commander somehow managed to make himself the leader of the troops who passed the U.S. vetting system that he’d failed. Moreover, it meant Abu Zayd had direct access to weapons and equipment provided by the U.S.
Rebels told The Daily Beast without equivocation that Abu Zayd was the man who had handed over the U.S. equipment to Nusra.
On Friday, doing their best to split these tangled hairs, Pentagon officials insisted the vehicles and ammunition confiscated by Nusra were only in the hands of those who received U.S. training. And as it turned out, the commander responsible for the handover to Nusra to win safe passage had been vetted but did not receive U.S. training, a defense official told The Daily Beast.
The military would not name the commander but rebels on the ground identified him to The Daily Beast as, yes, you guessed it, Abu Zayd.
Who is this guy? Abu Zayd is a commander in Division 30, a rebel group from which the United States recruits fighters to receive U.S. training and equipment as long as they agree to fight ISIS instead of, or at least before, making war on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. officials had said at first they could not account for the fighters once they entered Syria, but announced Friday they believe all U.S.-trained fighters are accounted for.
The U.S. military said the fighters are embroiled in the kind of war where tracking precise movements is difficult.“Syria is a very complicated battlefield with [ISIS], Al Nusra and the moderate and vetted opposition’s area of control frequently and sometimes quickly shifting. This is a battlefield situation in which the moderate and vetted opposition continues to face threats on multiple fronts, including from various extremist groups. It’s important to be clear eyed about the conditions in which these forces operate, the groups working against them, and the need to overcome the challenges they have encountered and will continue to face,” CENTCOM spokesman Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “In this particular instance, the [vetted] commander leading the [U.S. trained] graduates self-reported to coalition forces that under threat from Al Nusra, they surrendered six trucks and some ammunition to a suspected Al Nusra Front intermediary to secure safe passage. We will look at what we can do to prevent such a situation in the future, but given the complexity of the battlefield it is not possible to eliminate all risk. We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response.”
The U.S military’s inability to account for its personnel and equipment is the latest blow for a program seemingly at a precipice. U.S. defense officials had originally planned to train 5,400 fighters a year, but earlier this month U.S. Central Command commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin admitted to the Senate Armed Services committee that only “four or five” had entered the fight in Syria out of an inaugural class of 54 (about half a company). The number of active fighters doubled days later to … nine. That is, a fraction of a platoon.
After Austin’s testimony, U.S. officials publicly bantered about alternative uses for the Syrian trainees other than as a singular rebel force, including having them advise already existing local forces.
But the Obama administration has not yet made a decision on the program’s fate. The addition of 71 fighters last week was supposed to revitalize a program in which many on the ground in the Middle East and in Washington had lost faith.
Instead, it exposed a program that already has put U.S. equipment in jihadist hands—and fighters who could not fend off attacks by such groups.
The U.S. military has said it remains committed to the program.