General Raymond Thomas, Commander of the US Special Forces. Photo: US DoD
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A top US general has said that he instructed the Kurdish-led YPG forces in Syria to change their “brand” just before the US-backed group announced the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a new alliance of Kurdish and Arab groups in northern Syria in 2015, to fight ISIS.
"We literally played back to them: 'You have got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?' With about a day's notice they declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces,” General Raymond Thomas, the head of Special Operations Command told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Friday, an annual conference that brings together governmental and military security officials and experts.
"I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere. But it gave them a little bit of credibility,” the US General added.
The revelations shows the dynamics of the YPG willing to adapt in order to win the support of the US forces, particularly when Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and therefore a terrorist organization.
Both the US and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization, but they differ on the designation of the YPG.
Thomas said that they asked for the name change because Turkey, a NATO ally, equated the YPG to the PKK.
Despite heavy losses at the outset of the war against the ISIS group in Syria, the US general said that the group continued to fight on, and then started to grow in number and strength under the SDF banner.
Asked how would the US decide who to partner with on the ground, Thomas said that sometimes it is a matter of “who is available.”
He recollected that the US forces came about to partner with the YPG as the ISIS group were on march to the Kurdish city of Kobane in Syria.
“Other Kurds introduced us to this problem,” Thomas said of the ISIS offensive against the YPG in Kobane, perhaps a reference to the Kurdistan Regional Government, adding that the were asked by the Kurds whether “you could help them [YPG]?”
The KRG deployed hundreds of Peshmerga forces equipped with heavy weaponry to help support the YPG on the ground at a later stage of the Kobane siege in late 2014.
He said that at the beginning he had no idea where Kobane is, and had to find it on the map.
Thomas who said that he was in touch with the YPG forces directly in 2015, appreciated the presence of the US Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS global coalition Brett McGurk around the same time.
He said that while he was focused on the military details, he could not give the Kurds other things that they wanted.
He gave the example of diplomatic representation the Syrian Kurds wanted to be part of, such as in the UN-sponsored Geneva talks or the Russian-backed Astana talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
He said on the diplomatic level McGurk was able to “keep them in the conversation.”
The United States suggested continued support to the SDF last month when the Defence Secretary Jim Matis said that they may continue to provide military assistance to the Syrian Kurdish forces even after the liberation of the ISIS-held de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.