The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command reversed course Friday and acknowledged that a new contingent of Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S. had turned over truckloads of gear and ammunition to the Al Nusra Front group to avoid attack and get safe passage back into Turkey.
Earlier this week, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was "patently false" that there had been defections by the U.S. trained group to al-Nusra or that equipment had been handed over. "We believe those reports to be false."
On Friday, Davis acknowledged his previous denial was incorrect.
"In Wednesday's gaggle I denied reports that New Syrian Force personnel had defected or handed over weapons to al-Nusra Front," he said in an email. "We believed at the time that those reports were false, based on reports from NSF that all equipment was under their control and from the fact that the ANF tweet included what we knew to be a repurposed old photo. Unfortunately, we learned late today that the NSF unit now says it did in fact provide six pick-up trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected al-Nusra Front."
In a statement later Friday, U.S. Central Command said that notification came Friday from a commander of the New Syrian Forces, the name of the U.S. trained group, that he had "surrendered some of his unit's Coalition-issued equipment to a suspected Al Nusra Front intermediary purportedly in exchange for safe passage within their operating area."
It was not immediately clear whether the equipment handed over included weapons.
Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a CentCom spokesman, said that the NSF commander informed his U.S. contacts that "on Sept. 21-22 they gave six pickup trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected Al Nusra Front intermediary, which equates to roughly 25 percent of their issued equipment."
Ryder said that "If accurate, the report of NSF members providing equipment to Al Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines."
The report on equipment being turned over for safe passage was the latest setback for a Syrian rebel train-and-equip program that Congress funded with $500 million last year.
The initial plan was to have about 3,000 rebels trained by the U.S. and pledged to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (also known as ISIL) -- and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- on the ground in Syria by the end of this year.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the CentCom commander, stunned the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing earlier this month when he testified that only four or five rebels trained by the U.S. were actually in Syria.
Last week, the Pentagon said that about 70 U.S. trained rebels had gone back into Syria. Last month, an initial force of about 50 rebels entered Syria but were quickly attacked by the al-Nusra Front and mostly fled back into Turkey under cover of U.S. airstrikes.
The al-Nusra Front, believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia and tacitly supported by Turkey, claims to be the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and has been fighting against the Assad regime and sometimes ISIS.
Earlier this week, "the Al Nusra front tweeted an image of a Coalition-issued rifle and claimed that the newest NSF members had handed over all their weapons upon re-entering Syria last week," Ryder said.
"In light of this new information, we wanted to ensure the public was informed as quickly as possible about the facts as we know them at this time," Ryder said. "We are using all means at our disposal to look into what exactly happened and determine the appropriate response."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.