"Wearing YPG insignia takes things a step further. It says in effect not only that the United States finds the YPG useful in fighting against [Daesh] in Syria but that it identifies with YPG goals generally," Paul R. Pillar wrote for the National Interest.
Kurdish fighters both in Iraq and Syria have proved to be one of the most efficient ground forces trying to tackle Daesh. At the same time, experts have said that once the brutal group is defeated, the Kurds could demand greater autonomy, if not independence.
Pic 1: U.S. soldier in Syria with green patch of female Kurdish unit YPJ. Pic 2: US soldier with yellow patch of YPG pic.twitter.com/EoXo65jhTo— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) 26 мая 2016 г.
Senior officials in Iraqi Kurdistan have voiced similar sentiments in recent months as they prepare to conduct a referendum to determine the future of their region later this year.
Photos showing US special operations forces sporting YPG insignias were released on Thursday, causing a firestorm. They were taken near the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Daesh's caliphate, as the Kurdish forces are preparing for an offensive on the militant stronghold.
The incident was followed by some awkward flip-flopping on part of US defense officials. Initially, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook explained away the patches as a necessary step that US troops sometimes take "to blend in with the community to enhance their own protection."
Major Tiffany Bowens of Special Operations Command Central later told the Daily Beast that the move was a trust-building measure, adding that it was a tactical decision, since the practice goes against official regulations.
"US Special Operations Forces and their counterparts typically swap unit patches as a method to build trust," she noted. "This small act builds rapport and serves as a sign of cooperation, which we traditionally employed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Jordan."
Finally, US defense officials essentially backtracked on their earlier statements, saying that the move was unauthorized and all US troops taking part in Washington's anti-Daesh operation should remove all YPG insignias from their uniforms.
"Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized, and it was inappropriate and corrective action has been taken," Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters on Friday.
Washington's "military partners and military allies in the region" have also been informed of this decision, he added. Although Warren did not name anyone, his message was most likely meant to assure Turkey that a similar incident will not take place in the future.
Unsurprisingly, Ankara was furious when photos of US troops wearing YPG insignia emerged. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the move, saying that Ankara's friends, let alone fellow NATO partners "must not send their soldiers to Syria wearing YPG insignia."
Ankara and PKK leadership were engaged in peace talks, but the months-long process was shattered last year. Turkish authorities then launched a military operation to crack down on PKK militants and their supporters. The campaign has caused international condemnation as was decried as a humanitarian catastrophe.
But Turkey's reservations are not the only thing that matters.
"The broader symbolism of US troops identifying with a local militia goes well beyond upsetting the Turks. The symbolism gets to the broader problem of the United States in effect subordinating itself to the goals and interests of some of the parties to local conflicts," Pillar noted.
Then there is the issue of Washington's true intentions in the region. "The false-front aspects of wearing someone else's insignia, as with wearing no insignia at all, tend to feed suspicions of what undeclared shenanigans the United States is up to," the analyst added.
Finally, Washington risked sending a wrong message when US special operations forces put Kurdish insignias on their uniforms.
"The US troops sent to Syria have a very difficult job, given the confusion about objectives and priorities that have plagued the US involvement in this multi-sided conflict. A move that can look like hiding behind the skirts of a Kurdish resistance group is one reflection of that confusion," Pillar observed.