Rebranding to Syrian Democratic Forces done to give group voice in Syria talks, assuage Ankara, US general says
The U.S. urged its main Syrian ally to rebrand itself to avoid Turkish concerns and give the group a voice in Syria's future, the head of U.S. special forces said Friday.
"I was on the formative stage of the relationship with these guys," Army Gen. Raymond Thomas told a security gathering in Aspen, Colorado.
"They formally called themselves the YPG, who the Turks would say equated to the PKK," he said. "So we literally played back to them that you’ve got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourself besides the YPG? With about a day’s notice they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces."
The name change was vital to getting the group legitimacy in talks about Syria's future, Thomas said, noting that U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk "was able to keep them in the conversation" after the rebranding.
"They wanted a seat at the table," Thomas said, "and because they had been branded as PKK they could never get to the table."
Thomas acknowledged that group will still have a "branding challenge going forward".
"The first time Brett McGurk and I went out to this very old, cold guildhall in Kobani, right on the Turk border, we went in there, a bunch of somber technocrats and military people, and whose beaming face is looking down on us from the front of the guildhall but Ocalan," he recalled, referring to Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK.
"We said, 'hey, that's got to go. You cannot belong to Ocalan and have any chance of legitimacy in the construct we're in," he said. "If they continue to keep linkage to past product, or PKK linkage specifically, the relationship [with the U.S.] is fraught with challenges."
The U.S. has supported the PKK/PYD along with several other Arab militia groups under the umbrella of the SDF, long vexing Ankara.
The U.S. views the SDF as a "reliable partner" in its fight against Daesh and continues to provide it with arms and equipment against strong objection by Turkey that views the PKK/PYD as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terror group.
The PKK has waged a terror campaign against Turkey for more than 30 years that has led to the deaths of more than 40,000 people. It is a designated terror group in Turkey, the U.S. and EU.