FATISAH, Syria — Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama decided to send 250 more Special Forces to the Syrian battlefield against the so-called Islamic State, they’ve been easy to spot on the front lines in Hasakah, Tisreen Dam, and near Raqqa, the capital of the “caliphate” that’s also called ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh.
In a base close to the town of Ayn al-Issa, U.S. soldiers are not only advising, they are also assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) very closely in targeting ISIS positions with mortars and laser guided air strikes.
Now photographs have surfaced of some of the American soldiers wearing the bright red, yellow, and green patches of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that have proved some of the most committed and effective fighters on the ground against ISIS.
Critics note the YPG has close links with the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party that has waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish government and is flatly labeled terrorist by Turkish officials.
A de facto alliance between the YPG and the United States-led coalition fighting ISIS became evident during the nearly 200-day siege of Kobani, a Syrian town on the Turkish border, where ISIS was finally defeated and rolled back thanks to YPG fighters on the ground and coalition airstrikes.
The photographs, however, suggest a much tighter relationship, and one more perilous for American soldiers on the front lines than had been previously acknowledged by the U.S. administration.
It is unclear if the pictures were taken with YPG permission. In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, coalition forces that train Kurdish Peshmerga forces do not allow journalists to shoot pictures of their faces.
Moreover, the YPG media office initially told local journalists not to take video footage of the U.S. Special Forces. Nevertheless, still pictures and videos were published online showing U.S. soldiers involved in the Northern Raqqa operation that was launched last Tuesday, 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the city of Raqqa itself.
The photographs posted on AFP Thursday are an outward display of a quietly evolving—and complex—U.S. policy in Syria.
Where the U.S. once said it would not enter Syria, its troops now are leading the effort to find and train enough local Arab fighters to enter the Arab city of Raqqa.
This is key, because the Kurds are reluctant to fight beyond the borders of the lands that many hope someday will be the frontiers of an independent Kurdish nation. While they might spearhead—or support—a fight to drive ISIS from Raqqa and eventually from Mosul in Iraq, it’s unlikely they could or would secure those cities over the long run.
The U.S. has said that its forces would not be on the front lines but rather advise local forces that are working to reclaim cities north of Raqqa from ISIS, moving well behind them; the photos suggest otherwise as U.S. troops appear to be side-by-side with their local counterparts.
The Pentagon stuck to its position Thursday, despite the photos showing that U.S. forces were indeed moving south toward Raqqa with local forces.
“They are not on the forward line,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters, even as he struggled to define such a line as anything other than “fluid.” Cook also refused to answer questions about the photos, citing operational security, even though the photos of U.S. soldiers wearing YPG patches had been published.
Maj. Tiffany Bowens of Special Operations Command Central, emailed The Daily Beast on Thursday: “The command is aware of these photos and it is a correct statement that this practice is officially against uniform regulations,” she said. “However, U.S. Special Operations Forces and their counterparts typically swap unit patches as a method to build trust. This small act builds rapport and serves as a sign of cooperation, which we traditionally employed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Jordan.”
“This is a tactical decision and not a reflection of U.S. Government policy,” she added.
The U.S. insists that more and more Arabs are willing to join the YPG to enter Raqqa; that the Kurds will help reclaim Raqqa even as they have no interest in adding the city to its potential autonomous region; and that the Turks, who oppose a Kurdish state, will accept U.S. forces working so closely with the Kurdish forces.
And yet, during a surprise visit last week to the U.S. training effort, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command commander, reporters traveling with him appeared to see mostly Kurdish trainees.
Privately, U.S. officials concede the policy is evolving as it happens. The current plan is for Kurdish forces, who now are about 30 miles north of Raqqa, will only go another 10 miles south. After that, the newly trained Arab forces, known as the Syrian Arab Coalition, will lead the fight into Raqqa, a senior Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast.
The fight for Raqqa is still months away, the official explained. And what precisely will happen to Raqqa once it is rid of ISIS?
“We are still discussing this,” the official explained.
Although many Western media reported that the battle right now is for the city of Raqqa, Kurdish officials deny this.
“They are focused on capturing northern Raqqa, not Raqqa city itself,” Salih Muslim, the leader YPG-allied Democratic Union Party (PYD), told The Daily Beast in his house. “For liberating Raqqa city, we need many other steps like preparing for the next administration of Raqqa,” he said. The Kurds did set up a city council for the city of Manbij, but so far they haven’t for the city of Raqqa, despite requests from Arabs in Tal Abyad whose families are under ISIS control in Raqqa.
Even Salih Muslim, one of the most well known Syrian Kurdish leaders, was surprised by the pictures showing the U.S. soldiers with the logos of the YPG, and a male fighter with a logo of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). “Is he a man or a woman,” he asked. “That logo is for female fighters,” he said in his house in Kobani. (The women fighters among these Kurdish forces are famous, and ferocious.)
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Western coalition forces, including Canadian Special Forces, can be seen wearing patches with Kurdish flags, or the logos of local Peshmerga brigades like the Zerevani forces, in order to show their respect to the forces they train and work with. But this is the first time that U.S. soldiers can be seen on the front lines in Syria with logo of the Kurdish YPG.
If cooperation, or solidarity, is the aim of the U.S. Special Forces in Syria, it seems to be working. Local YPG fighters clearly are pleased with the American presence. “We are very happy to fight side by side against terrorists,” Heval Aziz Kobani told The Daily Beast. “We are honored by this, we appreciate it if they wear our logos,” he said.
Aziz Kobani said it was quite logical. “Daesh is not only the enemy of the Kurds, they are the enemy of humanity,” he added.
Salih Muslim said that the Kurds have a huge sympathy for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.
“I don’t know if the Kurds should feel happy or not,” said Muslim. “We as Kurds do not have any feeling against the Americans and have a kind of sympathy. They helped the Kurdish people many times, when the ISIS knife was on the neck of the Kurdish people,” he told The Daily Beast in his house that was destroyed in the heavy fighting when ISIS besieged Kobani in September 2014.
The PYD leader acknowledged there is now more support for the Kurds than six months ago and after the visit of senior officials, like U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk, and CENTCOM’s Gen. Joseph Votel.
“We are dealing with each other and they trust us more,” he said. “The Americans used to mostly help the Arabs, but now in the field they can see the difference between Arab and Kurdish fighters, and now know how brave they fight,” he told The Daily Beast, referring to the battle of Kobani, where ISIS was defeated.
However, he said it’s possible that there are not only U.S. Special Forces on the ground. “Maybe the French, British, and Dutch are also involved, I don’t know,” he added.
On the front lines near the village of Fatisah, a British foreign volunteer told The Daily Beast, that British special forces from the SAS were at the small base we were visiting. He did not want to talk on the record, however. In the background, airstrikes could be seen hitting ISIS targets.
“The foreigners come to us from foreign countries and help us with the fight against the Islamic State,” said Heval Soresh, a YPG fighter. “It’s not secret or something confidential,” he said.
“British, Americans, French Special Forces are involved,” he added. “When we see foreign fighters and foreign volunteers help us to fight terrorists, this raises is our morale,” he added.
Most likely, the increased presence of Western special forces and the fact that the new commander for the U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Votel, visited Kurdish forces, will anger Turkey. Indeed, Turkey’s deputy chief of the general staff, Yaşar Güler warned Votel during a two-hour meeting to not trust the YPG.
But the problem of the logos is just one small part of the much bigger problem, after years in which Ankara tacitly allowed ISIS to build its forces using Turkish territory, and focused most of its attention on the Kurds as the enemy.
“They [the Turks] will complain every time, with or without logos,” Idris Nassan, a former senior official in Kobani, told The Daily Beast. “They are so upset about U.S. support for Kurds and they are doing everything to stop it.”
“Wearing YPG and YPJ logos and flags by U.S. soldiers and foreign volunteers means that both Kurdish defender groups are a model for resistance against terrorists,” said Nassan. “Foreign soldiers put on their logos as sign of courage and appreciation for the mentioned forces who are almost the only fighters defeating ISIS within Syrian territories.”
Wladimir van Wilgenburg reported from Fatisah, Nancy Youssef from Washington, D.C. Kimberly Dozier also contributed to this story from Tampa, Florida.