- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2016

American commanders have ordered U.S. special operations troops in Syria to remove patches affiliating those forces with the Kurdish rebel group Turkey has labeled as a terrorist organization.

U.S. special operations advisers sporting the insignia of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, the paramilitary unit with ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, were photographed while conducting operations alongside the unit outside of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.

The wearing the Kurdish patches “was unauthorized and inappropriate and authoritative action has been taken,” Col. Steve Warren, the top U.S. military spokesman for anti-Islamic State operations in the region, said Friday.

Images of American troops affiliating themselves with the Kurdish Worker’s Party drew the ire from Turkish officials, who have labeled the separatist group a terrorist organization on par with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“It is unacceptable that an ally country is using the YPG insignia. We reacted to it. It is impossible to accept it. This is a double standard and hypocrisy,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, using the Turkish acronym for the group.

In Washington, Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kılıç also relayed Turkey’s irritation by the news of U.S. troops sporting YPG emblems to his counterparts at the State Department.

Col. Warren did note the American forces wearing the patch were not attempting to make any politically-charged statement on the YPGs’ designation by Istanbul. The move was a reflection of several longstanding traditions within U.S. special operations units that work closely with foreign forces across the globe.

“The special forces community has a long and proud history of wearing such patches when they are partnering with forces around the world,” he said. “This is something that they often do, and it’s an effort to, you know, just kind of connect with those that they’re training.”

That said, openly affiliating with the YPG on the ground in Syria, the American units did not give enough credence to the “political sensitivities around the organization that that patch represents,” according to Col. Warren.

“These guys on the ground do what they’re going to do and they have their customs and courtesies that they have been following for years. But it’s also important to understand the larger strategic context, which … they didn’t understand that or appreciate it as they should have,” he added.

Pictures of the U.S. special operations team on the ground in Syria, published Thursday by Agence France-Presse, were the first clear signs that American troops are directly involved with combating the Islamic State in the country.

Recent reports claim Syrian and Kurdish forces, alongside U.S. troops, have begun slowly retaking territory in and around the Islamic State’s so-called Syrian capital of Raqqa in preparation for the final assault on the city.

The Pentagon has been unyielding in its claims that American troops supporting local forces against the Islamic State are stationed well behind the front lines and are not directly involved in ground combat operations against the terror group.

But as the fight to drive Islamic State from Iraq and Syria heats up, it has been increasingly difficult for the Defense Department and Obama administration to deny American forces are playing a larger role in combat operations in both countries.

The images of U.S. special forces fighting in Syria is only the latest example of the increasingly blurry line American military advisers are walking between combat and noncombat operations.

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