An uproar has erupted across Turkey as images surfaced apparently showing U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the insignia of a Kurdish group opposed by the Turkish government. The series of images, by an AFP photographer, show US soldiers operating alongside members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a US-backed anti-IS Kurdish-Arab alliance largely comprised of the YPG and YPJ, the men’s and women’s wings of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
This is the first time images have emerged of US troops apparently wearing the militia insignia, although US officials have previously acknowledged that its troops are working alongside the YPG. The images were reportedly taken about 30 miles from Raqqa, an IS stronghold in Syria. The US military has refused to comment directly on the images
Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, a banned Kurdish militant group. Many Turks don’t trust the Kurds, who wish to carve out an autonomous region in northern Syria known as Rojava. Turkish authorities view Kurdish demands for autonomy as a threat to Turkey’s sovereignty. Over the years, the Turkish government has backed rebel groups that have clashed with the YPG.
During an international conference in southern Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that it was “unacceptable” for soldiers of a Turkish ally to use the patches of the YPG and called the US “two-faced.” He also said Turkey had relayed its displeasure to U.S. officials in Washington and in Turkey.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook remarked on the matter, saying that US special forces have in the past “worn insignias and other identifying marks with some of their partner forces.” He said it is common for US soldiers to attempt to blend in with local partners and that the patches were for the soldier’s protection. Turkey has reportedly rejected those explanations.
Special operations forces in Syria are on an “advise and assist mission” with forces that carry out the fight against IS, according to Cook. Specifics about their location were not mentioned, but reports suggest they were in or near Fatisah, retaken from Islamic State militants in recent days. The ground offensive is being supported by air strikes from the US-led anti-IS coalition.
About 50 special operations forces were previously deployed in Syria for the advising mission, and President Barack Obama has authorized the deployment of 250 more. Cook stressed that American troops are not at the battlefront. Senior military officials speaking on condition of anonymity said there has been no change to the policy that the commandos will advise and assist but not fight on the front lines. Officials would not say exactly how many special operations forces are currently in Syria.