Central command denies reports US-backed rebels defected to al-Nusra
The US military has denied reports that fighters sent into Syria over the weekend had defected to al-Nusra Front or that US-made weapons from the group were in the militant group’s hand.
“US Central Command has no indication that any New Syrian Forces [NSF] fighters have defected to al-Nusra Front, contrary to several press and social media reports. Additionally, all Coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters,” said CENTCOM in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Approximately 70 graduates of the Coalition's Syria Train and Equip Program successfully returned to Syria over the weekend and are currently operating there as New Syrian Forces.”
The denial comes after photos circulated on Twitter - purportedly from al-Nusra Front fighters - appearing to show the group brandishing American-made weapons:
Further confusion arose after Division 30 - part of the NSF - tweeted saying that the photos were in fact taken in their HQs and not taken by al-Nusra, although the US has denied this.
"We can look at all kinds of photographs, but there's no telling the date, no telling where they came from, so we can't substantiate something we have never even seen before," a CENTCOM spokesperson told Middle East Eye.
The CENTCOM statement would also appear to contradict the apparent defection of Major Anas Obaid, who is believed to have joined al-Nusra.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Obaid announced that he and his troops had were “outside” Division 30.
“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we, the grouping of revolutionaries of Atareb and its countryside, announce that we are outside Division 30 Infantry and we are an independent faction working on the Syrian lands in isolation from coordination with the international coalition,” he wrote.
“And we confirm to the Syrian people that we will fight the khawarij [Islamic State] of the age and respond to their aggression in Aleppo and its countryside.”
Captain Ammar al-Wawi, the official spokesperson of Division 30, told The Daily Beast that he could "neither confirm nor deny" the defection.
"If it’s true, this defection was expected," he said. "We warned those in charge of this program. 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.”
In a press statement released on Monday, the US Central Command said that about 70 graduates of the Syria Train and Equip programme had re-entered Syria with their weapons and equipment and were operating as NSF alongside Syrian Kurds, Sunni Arabs and other anti-IS forces.