Just days after the U.S. military and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab groups announced the beginning of their offensive to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, images have emerged of what appear to be U.S. Special Operations forces fighting near the front lines.
The pictures, as distributed by Agence France Presse, indicate that the troops were identified as American by the group they are supporting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The images were taken near the Syrian village of Fatisah, roughly 30 miles from the city of Raqqa. According to the photographer there were more than a dozen U.S. troops accompanying the SDF.
The troops have all the hallmarks of America’s clandestine warriors: low profile helmets, a smattering of non-traditional small arms and camouflage patterns consistent with special warfare units. In one image a trio of U.S. forces are clustered around what appears to be an advanced Mk.47 40mm automatic grenade launcher. The system, built by General Dynamics, is primarily used by Special Operations units and has not been widely sold outside the United States.
In one image, someone who appears to be an American is wearing a Kurdish People’s Protection Unit patch on his left arm. Known as the YPG, the Kurdish units form a large majority of the SDF and have been critical to almost all of the victories against the Islamic State in northern Syria.
US military special forces pictured aiding Kurdish fighters
US military special forces pictured aiding Kurdish fighters in Syria
The YPG has long been branded by the Turkish authorities as the Syrian arm of Turkey’s Kurdistan’s Workers Party, known as the PKK. The PKK is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States, but U.S. officials dispute the Turkish claim that the PKK and the YPG are one and the same. But the appearance of a YPG patch on a U.S. soldier’s arm will likely inflame tensions with Ankara as well as some Arab groups aligned against the Kurds, including components of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels.
US special operations forces in uniform ride in the back of a pickup truck
When embedded with a partner country or ally, U.S. Special Operations forces often wear the patch or sometimes even the uniform of those they are supporting. Showing solidarity with allies is an essential component of one of Special Operation’s key missions, known as Foreign Internal Defense, or FID.
“They are basically on the front lines, backing up the local SDF forces with artillery and targeting assistance. It’s unclear how many there are,” said Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a researcher based in the Kurdish northeast with the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. “They can be found on every front line, but in the northern Raqqa operation there is a much bigger concentration.”
An original force of 50 special operators was bolstered by the arrival of an additional 250 troops in April. After the troops deployed, a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss military plans, said their primary focus would be to train more Arab forces in the Raqqa area, and bring them into the SDF.
U.S. Special Operations troops have been a linchpin for recent operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but the Pentagon and White House insist that the troops are participating in a non-combat mission known as “train, advise and assist.” That means that the U.S. troops are often in a supporting role, providing fire support and coordinating airstrikes from behind the front lines, although in a complex fight such as the ones in Iraq and Syria, that line is often blurred.
Erdogan, the Lonely Man of the Middle East
Turkey 'condemns' US for backing Kurdish fighters in Syria
Turkey's president has slammed the US for its support of Kurdish forces fighting the 'Islamic State' (ISIS) in Syria. US troops were photographed wearing the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit YPG patches in Syria that Ankara considers a terrorist group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday condemned Washington and accused the United States of not being "honest" about its alliance with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
"The support they give to... the YPG (militia)... I condemn it," Erdogan said in a speech he delivered in the mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in Turkey's southeast.
"Those who are our friends, who are with us in NATO, should not and cannot send their soldiers to Syria wearing YPG insignia."
US commandos in Syria were this week photographed wearing YPG patches on their uniforms. Keen to avoid a rift with Turkey, a US military spokesman said Friday that American troops were not authorized to wear the emblems and had been ordered to remove them.
Ankara regards the Syrian YPG as a terror group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government for more than three decades.
"The PKK, the PYD, the YPG, Daesh (Islamic State), there is no difference. They are all terrorists," Erdogan said.
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Latest from Aleppo:
ISIS drives Syria rebels from near Turkish border/ Aleppo
Syrian rebels fire a starting shell from a hell-cannon in Aleppo
ISIS fighters captured territory from Syrian rebels near the Turkish border on Friday and inched closer to a town on a supply route for foreign-backed insurgents fighting the jihadists, a monitoring group said.
The hardline group has been fighting against rebels in the area for several months. The rebels, who are supplied via Turkey, last month staged a major push against Islamic State, but the group counter-attacked and beat them back.
The United States has identified the area north of Syria's former commercial hub Aleppo as a priority in the fight against the Islamic State group (IS).
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday's advance was the biggest by IS in Aleppo province for two years. It brought the jihadists to within 5 km (3 miles) of Azaz, a town near the border with Turkey through which insurgents have been supplied.
Islamic State said in a statement it had captured several villages near Azaz.
International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said it evacuated patients and staff from a hospital in the area as the fighting got closer, and that tens of thousands of people were trapped between the frontlines and Turkish border.
A Syrian NGO operating in the area said the latest assault by IS had displaced 20,000 more people toward Turkey.
The advance also cut rebel supply lines from Azaz to the town of Marea farther southeast, isolating the latter from other rebel-held areas, the Observatory said.
The Observatory said the fighting had killed 30 rebel fighters and 11 members of Islamic State.
In April, Islamic State militants seized another strategic town near the Turkish border from rebel factions fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
A sergeant in Lewa Salaheddin, Free Syrian Army, sits in front of a block of destroyed buildings in Aleppo, Syria.
The IS advances on Friday encroach on a corridor of rebel-held territory that leads from the Turkish border down toward Aleppo city, which is divided between insurgent and government control.
Aleppo's northern countryside is the theater of several separate battles between multiple warring sides in the five-year-old conflict, which has drawn in military involvement of regional and world powers that back different groups.
Rebels supplied through Turkey have been fighting Islamic State and separately battling Kurdish forces in other areas.
Ankara, a major sponsor of groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, is concerned by Kurdish advances along its border, where the Kurdish YPG militia already controls an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch.
Turkey has shelled Kurdish positions inside Syria.
The United States supports the YPG and allied fighters in its battle against Islamic State farther east, including in Hasaka and Raqqa provinces.
Islamic State's foothold at the Turkish border was significantly loosened last year when YPG fighters gained territory from the group.
Islamic State has declared a cross-border Islamic caliphate in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Syrian government and allied forces are also fighting rebels north of Aleppo.
The Observatory said more than 20 people including children died on Friday in air strikes on rebel-held parts of Aleppo city and areas to its northwest.
Separately, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Nusra Front and other insurgents late on Thursday seized control of a town south of Damascus from government forces, the Observatory said.
Nusra Front said in a statement it had captured Deir Khabiyeh, which is near an area where government forces and allies have sought to tighten control of a road leading south.
Last week, government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies captured territory in Damascus's eastern suburbs from insurgents.
Nusra Front and Islamic State are rivals in the Syrian conflict and have been fighting each other, including near Damascus, in separate battles from those between insurgents and government forces.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Dasha Afanasieva in Ankara; Editing by Tom Heneghan)