Reversing Course on U.S. Soldiers Wearing Kurdish Rebel Insignia

Two soldiers from the Syrian army carry a rocket to fire at Islamic State group positions in the province of Raqqa, Syria in February. Two soldiers from the Syrian army carry a rocket to fire at Islamic State group positions in the province of Raqqa, Syria in February. Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP

The U.S. Defense Department has ordered American special-operations forces to take down the insignia of a Kurdish rebel group that Turkey regards as a terrorist organization—after angry complaints from Ankara and despite justifying the patches a day earlier.

“Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized and inappropriate, and corrective action has been taken,” Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) who is based in Baghdad, told reporters at the Pentagon. “We have communicated as much to our military partners and military allies in the region.”

On Thursday, Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, published photographs that showed U.S. special-operations forces alongside fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), near Raqqa, the Syrian city that serves as the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The Americans appeared to be wearing YPG insignia. Turkey, a U.S. ally, regards the YPG as a terrorist group, but the U.S. and its allies do not. The YPG and a host of other Kurdish groups are fighting ISIS, as the Islamic State is also known, in Iraq and Syria.

Delil Souleiman, the AFP photographer who took the pictures, wrote that the soldiers didn’t seem bothered by him and his colleague, a videographer for the French news agency.

Some prefer to look away when they see us pointing our cameras at them. Some yell to us not to take pictures of their faces. They don’t talk to us, but they are very calm and there is no hostility.

Peter Cook, the U.S. Defense Department spokesman, was asked Thursday about the photographs. His reply:

I'm not going to comment about specific photos.  What I will say is that special operations forces when they operate in certain areas do what they can to, if you will, blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security.  And special operations forces in the past have worked with partners, and in the past have conducted themselves in such a way that they -- that they might operate in an atmosphere in which they are supportive of that local force in their advise and assist role.

The apparent about-face Friday by Warren, the OIR spokesman, came after Turkey reacted angrily. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it was “unacceptable” for troops from a Turkish ally to wear the YPG insignia. Turkey regards the group as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the armed group that has fought the Turkish government for decades.

“To those who say they don’t consider the YPG to be the same as these terrorist groups, this is our response,” Cavusoglu said. “This is applying double standards, this is being two-faced.”

He said Turkey had expressed its views on the matter to U.S. officials. That appears to have yielded results.

In many ways, the fight over the YPG’s insignia serves as a microcosm for the United States’s increasingly complicated relationship with Turkey, for decades its closest ally in the region. Although the two countries have the same goal in Syria—to see President Bashar al-Assad step down—their views diverge of how to achieve that goal. Add to this mix the presence of ISIS and  Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, and Russia, who while backing Assad also cooperates with YPG. The Americans have preferred to rely on Kurdish and other fighters in the war against ISIS. Turkey, which has for years battled a violent Kurdish separatist movement, regards many of these groups as terrorists. It, in turn, has supported Islamist groups fighting Assad, groups the U.S. opposes.

As Steven A. Cook wrote in The Atlantic in February: “The Turks are isolated, under pressure, the target of terrorists, on the brink of a wider conflict in Syria, and headlong into a diplomatic crisis with the United States.”

Here’s more:

The Obama administration has tried hard to maintain the fiction that the YPG and PKK are distinct entities, but this has convinced absolutely no one. Even as American diplomats were claiming last summer that they were making progress bringing the Turks around to the way the United States viewed the YPG, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was declaring that Ankara would never accept what the Kurds call Rojava, meaning Western Kurdistan, which covers northern Syria. So now the Turks are shelling YPG positions in Syria while the YPG continues to coordinate with the United States as well as Russia, leading Turkish officials to conclude that both Washington and Moscow are colluding against Turkey. The Turks want the United States to choose between them or the YPG (and by extension the PKK). It is a bind for American officials. They can either sign up with the Turks, thereby undermining what they have going with the YPG against the Islamic State, or ditch Turkey altogether. Neither serves U.S. interests, so the administration has split the difference.

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