In the ongoing fight around Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital city inside Syria, some American Special Forces soldiers are wearing Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) patches on their uniforms as they back up Kurdish troops.
The sight of Americans wearing Kurdish patches is powerful, though perhaps not always for the reasons you might think.
For the American and Kurdish forces, it’s meant as a potent symbol of democratic unity against the common foe of ISIS. But the United States’s increasingly close partnership with the Kurds has increased tensions with Turkey, America’s NATO ally just a few miles to the north.
Turks have spent decades putting down Kurdish revolutions in violent clashes. Now that Turkish forces are fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, they say that the Kurds also fighting ISIS are the same terrorists they’ve been dealing with since the 1970s.
President Barack Obama recently sent 250 American Special Forces soldiers to Syria, increasing the American presence dramatically in the area around Raqqa.
American Special Forces are “not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces as they continue to drive ISIL back,” Obama said in April, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.
Early on Wednesday, American and Kurdish troops, along with some Russian support, launched an offensive against the area surrounding Raqqa. The operation is aimed at “putting pressure on Raqqa” but not capturing the city, an American military spokesman told the BBC.
Far to the south in Iraq, the country’s soldiers and militias, along with American-led coalition forces, are fighting near the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah, less than 40 miles from Baghdad. That offensive is intended to capture Fallujah, which has been used as a base of attack against the capital city.
The fighting in Fallujah has been exceptionally violent, with reports that ISIS is using death squads against any civilians who try to flee the city during the chaos.