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U.S.-Trained Syrian Rebels Gave Equipment To Al-Qaida-Linked Group


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Defense Department says the commander of a Syrian rebel group, trained and equipped by the United States and its allies, has surrendered trucks and ammunition to the Nusra Front. That is an al-Qaida affiliated group in Syria. U.S. central command says the rebel fighters apparently turned over about a quarter of their equipment. This is the second attempt to use coalition-trained rebels that has gone awry in Syria. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us. Tom, thanks very much for coming in this morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott. Good morning.

SIMON: What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, Scott, these American-trained rebels crossed into Syria from Turkey roughly a week ago, and the Pentagon says they turned over their trucks and ammunition to this al-Qaida affiliate, al-Nusra, for safe passage through the area. Now this acknowledgment by the Pentagon...

SIMON: Protection money, it sounds like.

BOWMAN: Exactly. It was a shakedown. Now, this acknowledgment by the Pentagon comes only hours after they denied reports that this had happened. It was a Facebook posting with a guy holding a weapon - a Nusra soldier claiming an American weapon. Pentagon said it's a lie. And they said it was an old photo and this story was a lie again. So clearly, very embarrassing for the Americans - or the train and equip program, which had hoped to train 5,400 soldiers by year's end. It's only trained a couple of hundred.

SIMON: Remind us what happened with that first group of rebels.

BOWMAN: The first 54...

SIMON: That the U.S. and allies trained, yeah.

BOWMAN: That's right. The first 54 went in roughly a month ago, and they met with disaster, frankly. Some were captured by al-Nusra - again, the same group we're talking about today. Others scattered. Some never even made it into Syria from Turkey. And Pentagon officials told us at the time - listen, the next group that goes in, we're going to be much more careful. We're going to take precautions. This is not going to happen again. Now, adding to all these embarrassments, the top American general for the region, General Lloyd Austin, he told Congress just last week that only four or five of the initial group are still fighting on the ground. And, by the way, this program costs about $500 million.

SIMON: Well, the math's easy to do, isn't it?

BOWMAN: Yeah, right.

SIMON: What does it say about the future of these coalition - the representation made that the coalition wants to make more attempts to try and intervene in the course of the Syrian civil war and support rebel groups they can identify with and support?

BOWMAN: Well, let's be honest. The U.S. strategy is, frankly, in tatters now. It was based on training these local force - again, roughly 5,400 - against the so-called Islamic Front, or ISIS, and then providing American and coalition air cover to help them. Now, many military people I talk with say, listen - the bombing can...

SIMON: The recognition being that air power alone is not enough.

BOWMAN: Exactly. You need some force on the ground to make this thing work - to hold territory. But people said the bombing was too light. Now this training program has fallen apart. ISIS is still a very formidable foe. They're still holding a lot of territory. And one of the problems you're seeing now is the Russians have moved in with a couple of dozen warplanes, their own tanks and so forth. They're saying to the Americans, we can help out in this effort. But what they want is for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to stay in power. That's something the Americans do not want, but they may be forced to assume a Russian strategy at this point.

SIMON: Tom Bowman, thanks so much for joining us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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