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Last week, I passed along articles from the Telegraph and the Daily Beast reporting that a top Syrian rebel commander trained by the United States had surrendered to al Qaeda and handed over weapons. The military at the time seemed dumbfounded by the accusations and claimed they simply weren’t true.

Now they’re flip-flopping like a fish in a dry tank. The Washington Post reports:

American-trained Syrian fighters gave at least a quarter of their U.S.-provided equipment to al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria early this week, the U.S. Central Command said late Friday.

In a statement correcting earlier assertions that reports of the turnover were a “lie” and a militant propaganda ploy, the command said it was subsequently notified that the Syrian unit had “surrendered” some of its equipment — including six pickup trucks and a portion of its ammunition — to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria.

The military is maintaining, however, that the commander who turned over the arms isn’t Anas Ibrahim Obaid, as the Daily Beast reported, but someone else who didn’t actually receive American training. The Beast, needless to say, was extremely skeptical of those claims this morning:

Right. This was the latest admission by the military in a week-long 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.

Still, whether Obaid was involved or not, the Pentagon has admitted that fighters involved in the transfer were trained by the United States. So however you slice it, American efforts in Syria have abetted al Qaeda. That this would happen was obvious to anyone who’s been studiously observing the Syrian Civil War, the dichotomy of which long ago shifted to the barbaric Assad regime versus barbaric Sunni Islamists. Nothing more, nothing less.

What are the takeaways here? First, as the Beast points out, the cascade of conflicting reports about the Obaid and the lost weapons shows that the Pentagon’s Syrian rebel program lacks sufficient oversight. And the Pentagon’s program is supposed to be distinct in that it has plenty of oversight, including a byzantine vetting process to prevent weapons from ending up in the wrong hands. This latest episode demonstrates how futile those controls really were.

Second, the Pentagon’s initiative must be shuttered before this happens again. The military is currently remodeling its plan by “dropping larger numbers of fighters into safer zones as well as providing better intelligence and improving their combat skills,” according to the New York Times. This will do nothing to prevent the next al Qaeda blowout weapons sale, nor will it address the greater incompatibility of the Syrian Civil War with American values. We’ve been arming the Syrian rebels for years now with few results and many snafus. The error is in the policy, not the implementation.

Third, the next president, whoever he or she might be, needs to approach Syria with an outlook unvarnished by idealism. Any realistic appraisal of the facts shows that vaulting “moderate” rebels to victory is no longer an option. The Russians have already acknowledged this, deploying troops to the Syrian port city of Latakia in order to shore up the regime. Neoconservatives wail that President Obama is ceding Syria to Russia—but the reason the Russians are taking the lead is precisely because America has sidelined itself by indulging a delusion.

Assad needs to go, but his regime should survive, perhaps with a more popular figurehead at the top in order to help unite the country. The Russians proposed just such a deal in 2012, only to be ignored by Western powers amped up on the prospect of ousting another Middle Eastern dictator. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have died. We can’t afford another mistake like that.

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