About 70 US-trained rebels have returned to Syria after receiving training in Turkey, crossing the border in gun-mounted four-wheel drives, the United States (US) military’s Central Command said Monday.
The development comes as US administration has been struggling to defend its military strategy in Syria, directed against the self-styled Islamic State (IS) militant group with an air campaign and programs to train, assist and equip local forces.
Last week, US Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder said that about 100 Syrian recruits were completing their US-led training programs and that most would soon be in Syria.
Central Command said in a news release that about 70 graduates of the Syria Train and Equip program had re-entered Syria with their weapons and equipment and were operating as New Syrian Forces alongside Syrian Kurds, Sunni Arab and other anti-IS forces.
The rebels’ return was first reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
In July, shortly after the first 54 US-trained fighters arrived, Syria’s affiliate of Al Qaida known as the Nusra Front, or Jabhat Al-Nusra, attacked them, killing several and taking others hostage while many fighters fled.
Ryder said that those rebels largely disbanded — of the 54, one was killed; one is being held captive; nine are back in the fight; 11 are available but not in Syria; 14 returned to Syria but quit the US program and 18 are unaccounted for.
The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdurrahman, said the men returned on Friday night.
They had been scheduled to return earlier in the month and have been receiving training, by British, American and Turkish trainers, near the Turkish capital Ankara, he said.
He said the men returned in 12 gun-mounted four wheel drives, crossing at the border near the Turkish town of Kalis. He said they also each had a bag with personal weapons and life vests.
The new US trainees are likely meant to intensify military pressure on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the so-called caliphate of the IS, which the IS established across much of Syria and Iraq.