American special operations forces photographed in Syria sporting patches of a Kurdish rebel group have been ordered to remove the patches because their use was "unauthorized" and "inappropriate," U.S. military officials said today.
Photos of the service members made public Thursday had outraged the Turkish government, which believes the Kurdish rebel group to be a terrorist organization in Turkey.
The photos showed American special operations forces advising Kurdish and Arab forces from the Syrian Democratic Forces near the village of Fatisah about 30 miles north of ISIS's de facto capital of Raqqah. The service members could be seen sporting what appeared to be insignia from the Kurdish People's Defense Forces, known by the initials YPG in Kurdish.
“Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized and it was inappropriate and corrective action has been taken, and we have communicated as much to our military partners and our military allies in the region,” said Col. Steve Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
Warren said the teams in Syria had been ordered to remove the patches from their uniforms. He said he was unaware of any official disciplinary action resulting from the incident. “The bottom line and the important thing is that the situation has been corrected and that we have communicated to our allies that such conduct was inappropriate and it was unauthorized," he said.
According to Warren, what made the wearing of the patches inappropriate were the “political sensitivities around the organization that that patch represents.” And those sensitivities are "with a NATO ally," said Warren, who did not specifically refer to Turkey.
Earlier Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized the wearing of the YPG patches by American troops as "unacceptable" given his government's belief that the group is part of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. Cooperation with Syrian Kurdish rebel groups to fight ISIS has been tricky for the United States which must balance the military advantage of the ground force they provide with concerns from Turkey, a fellow ally in the fight against ISIS, that sees those same groups as harmful to Turkish interests.
"In that case, we would recommend they use the patches of Daesh, al-Nusra and al-Qaeda when they go to other parts of Syria and of Boko Haram when they go to Africa," Cavusoglu said.
Warren acknowledged that the special operations teams sporting the patches were likely building on past practice of bonding with the local force they were working, much as has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. "We have to understand the guys on ground are going to do what they going to do, and they have their customs and courtesies they’ve been following for years," Warren said. "But it’s also important to understand the larger strategic context, which I think that the inappropriateness of it, that they didn’t understand that or appreciate it as they should have.”
He said that had been recognized, corrected and communicated “to our allies that we felt the patches were inappropriate because they are unauthorized, plain and simple, they’re not authorized and we’ve made the correction so everyone is moving on.”
Warren said the primary role of the 200 or so advisers in Syria is to work with the Syrian Arab forces pressuring Raqqah under the umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is primarily Kurdish. They are there to advise and assist those forces with command, logistical and air support needs, as far as he knows no U.S. forces have engaged in combat firefights.
Earlier this week, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced a ground offensive intended to take areas north of Raqqah. Since the American military advisers may visit some of these forces they may be near what are "fluid" front lines. At times that could mean some of the American forces could come as close as 15 to 20 miles away from Raqqah.
But Warren stressed that American forces in Syria deliberately plan to stay away from "enemy contact" planning missions to “ensure that wherever it is they go, enemy contact is not likely or in fact is unlikely. So I think that's number one.”