It would have escaped my attention if I had not followed the Twitter accounts of two terrorism experts. One from Türkiye, Nihat Ali Özcan of the think tank TEPAV, and the other from the US, Bruce Hoffman from Georgetown University. Both drew attention to the fact that The Washington Post, in the caption of the photo used in the article it published on its second page on January 28, wrote that US Special Forces were providing military training to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)- by its own name, not as the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), PYD or YPG.
The Washington Post article is not about Syria, ISIS, or the PKK. Its title is “Women in Special Forces Face Obstacles Despite Order for Full Integration”. The article describes the sexual discrimination and harassment female soldiers and officers face in the US Special Forces. The article uses the photo you see above, apparently taken in Syria last September, with the following caption: “US forces providing military training to the PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party in September. Women in elite U.S. military units still face obstacles despite an order years ago to integrate Special Forces.”
Terrorism scholars alerted
Bruce Hoffman wrote the following on his Twitter account:
• “Look at the caption of this photo on p. 2 of today’s WaPo. Does US SOF really “provide military training” to the PKK–a group listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Dept since 1997??? I think/hope that it is the Kurdish forces in the YPG or SDF.”
Nihat Ali Özcan retweeted a tweet by another security expert, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, who quoted Hoffman. Doran wrote the following:
• “The Washington Post committed a “Kinsley gaffe” — it stated a truth about the YPG (namely, that it is the PKK) which the paper, in deference to American officials, would normally prefer to hide.”
You may call it a Freudian slip; in Turkish, we say a “slip of the tongue”, or more colloquially “Allah made you say it”.
Perhaps because of this warning from prominent security scholars, the newspaper did not use the same photo in the Joe Davidson bylined story’s internet edition; they used an aerial photo of the Pentagon.
SDF is a US Special Forces invention
In September-October 2014, US President Barack Obama decided to cooperate with the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, and its armed forces, the YPG, against ISIS in Syria, rather than with its NATO ally Türkiye, after a bitter disagreement with Tayyip Erdoğan, who had just been elected President in August.
There was a serious problem: The US declared the PKK a terrorist organization in 1997, during the Bill Clinton administration. The PKK was established in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan as a Marxist-Leninist armed organization aimed at carving an independent Kurdish state out of territories of Türkiye, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, claiming more than 60 thousand lives so far. It was a joint CIA-MİT (Turkish National Intelligence Organization) operation that led to the capture of Öcalan in the Greek Embassy in Kenya in 1999 and brought him to Türkiye where he is serving his life sentence. In the US intelligence reports presented to Congress, it was openly written and discussed that the PYD and YPG were the Syrian branches of the PKK. The Pentagon could not get money from Congress to cooperate with the PKK and its affiliates, which the State Department and the CIA considered terrorists.
Brett McGurk, Obama’s coordinator for the fight against ISIS, and Raymond Thomas, the Special Forces commander, came up with a daring idea. They called YPG people and told them to change their names. “The next day they showed up with the name Syrian Democratic Forces,” Thomas said years later at the Aspen Forum, “and they added the word ‘democratic’.”
PKK and SDF are affiliated
It is also interesting that US officials are still repeating the policy of separating the PYD/YPG from the PKK. This clearly does not affect Ankara, or the PKK based in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq. But it clearly resonates in European democracies, from Germany to Sweden, where PKK lobbies are influential, and provides material against objections of Ankara as “We are against the PKK, but YPG and SDF are different” rhetoric.
Sweden’s problems today regarding its NATO application, which was made from fear of Russia, show this. A fascist politician’s burning of a copy of Muslim’s Holly Book of Koran came on top of this, but Sweden’s decision to put its NATO application in the fridge has also something to do with its fear of the possibility of the PKK stirring up trouble in Sweden than the threat of Russia. They, too, are trying to cling to the “PKK is one thing, YPG, SDF is another” narrative against Turkey, which has no real-life equivalent.
Will The Washington Post’s “Kinsley gaffe” that PKK militants were provided military training by US Special Forces lead to a change in the US policy in Syria which is one of its problems with its relations with Türkiye? There is not enough data to claim this, but it can be said that the US will not be able to continue its Syria policy for a long time and will decide to withdraw from Syria at some point, just as it withdrew from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.