WASHINGTON — Speaking on a panel at the Aspen Security Forum, Gen. Raymond Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), said the U.S. asked the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, to re-brand because of its alleged linkages to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist group.
“We literally replied back to them and said you got to change your brand,” Thomas said.
The SOCOM commander was responding to questions from Catherine Herridge, chief intelligence correspondent for Fox News, about how the U.S. military finds partner forces in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS are currently called the Syrian Democratic Forces, but they were “formerly called the YPG,” Thomas said during the interview.
“They came about that name because at one point in time, and I’ve dealt with them directly … they were formerly called the YPG, who the Turks would say equated to the PKK, you’re dealing with a terrorist enemy of mine,” Thomas said.
The YPG changed their name to the SDF in about a day, Thomas explained, saying that it was “a stroke of brilliance” to include “democracy” in their title.
SOCOM came in touch with the organization a couple years ago after the group was facing annihilation from ISIS in Kobane, Thomas explained. SOCOM at that time provided the embattled group in Kobane with “kinetic capabilities,” which helped the group survive.
SOCOM was interested in the group militarily, but the organization only numbered a couple thousand Kurdish fighters, the SOCOM commander said.
The group “has got to be more representative than that,” Thomas said he told them, asking the group “are there Arabs who want to join your coalition here?”
The SDF now number nearly 50,000 fighters, including Arab factions under the Syrian Arab Coalition.
The U.S. relationship with Turkey has soured since President Trump decided in May to provide arms to the SDF.
On Wednesday, Ankara allegedly leaked the locations of U.S. military installations to its state-run wire service, the Anadolu Agency, in Syria in retribution for U.S. support of the Kurdish fighters, according to a report by the Daily Beast.
Kurdish fighters are currently in their second month to liberate ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa, where fighting has slowed in recent days.
Thomas described the nature of the U.S. relationship with its partner forces as “sometimes it is of necessity who is available.” He also painted the Kurdish fighters as “the ones most discussed and most misunderstood.”
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.