A photographer for Agence France-Presse posted photos of US special forces soldiers fighting alongside the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) near Raqqa wearing the Kurdish army’s patch on their uniforms on May 27. The YPG is considered a terror organization in Turkey, but not by the United States and its allies. US support for the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) has been a point of growing tension between the United States and Turkey. As more photos and videos started circulating on social media, the public reaction in Turkey snowballed as well.
There were two main approaches to the photos in the mainstream media. Those critical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) used the opportunity to question the wisdom of AKP policies in Syria and toward the United States, and pro-AKP groups focused on harsh Turkish reactions and continued bashing the United States further. Several prominent commentators expressed disapproval of the AKP for not taking a clear stand against the United States.
Most pundits, including former Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug, argued that failed Turkish policies in Syria are the reason behind Kurdish-US cooperation.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu asked the AKP government to face the hypocrisy that they are the ones allowing the US forces to use Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to transport supplies for the YPG. He said it is not the patches that should worry the Turkish government, but the extent of the Kurdish military alliance with the United States. Soon enough, Turkish TV news programs were debating heated questions such as “Is the United States an ally or an enemy?”
Although US-Kurdish cooperation against IS has been in the news for months now, the photos generated much anger. Immediately, the United States provided an official explanation, stating the use of the insignia was unauthorized and inappropriate, yet in Turkey several media outlets still shared the news that the US soldiers had not removed their patches.
Why are these patches and images so charged with meaning? Their importance goes beyond just spontaneous outbursts of anger. There is a strong undercurrent of resentment and anger, particularly among Islamist and ultranationalist groups.
Although no prominent members of Muslim organizations would signal overt support for IS, their resentment toward the United States has grown loud and clear after these photos. Ibrahim Sediyani, a journalist and prominent writer, was the lone voice of dissent among those contacted by Al-Monitor. Sediyani said, “The YPG is not attacking Turkey, and the United States and others have repeatedly told Turkey they do not consider the YPG a terror organization and will continue to support the YPG in its battle against IS. So what is the big deal about the patches, which is just a standard procedure in the field?”
Other pundits would not agree. Murat Ozer, chairman of the nongovernmental organization Imkander, told Al-Monitor, “Remember the photo of knocking down Saddam Hussein’s statute with its face wrapped with the US flag? That photo remains in the minds of Iraqis not as the liberation of Iraq from dictatorship, but as a sign of the US invasion of Iraq. Similarly, the US soldiers with [Kurdistan Workers Party] PKK insignia will be in the collective memory of Turks. From here on, regardless of who is in control of the government in Turkey, Turks will question their place in NATO and the legitimacy of US presence on the bases. Those photos are a turning point in signaling how NATO became [useless]. Turkey has lost 50,000 people in the war against the PKK, and no political party can accept cooperation with the United States after this.”
Then there was the view from the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, known for its independent approach to politics. Its media bureau chief Mahmut Kar told Al-Monitor, “The establishment of a caliphate, as the regime crumbles in Syria, had a good chance. To prevent this, the United States supported the IS invasion of Mosul, and also the securing of northern Syria for the YPG. Turkey, Iraq and Iran do not wish to see a caliphate in Syria, because neither Russia nor the United States wants this. This is the crux of the situation in Syria. Now, if we look at Turkey, we see that beyond all the colorful rhetoric, Turkey has no viable policy or power in Syria and merely follows the lead of the United States. So why such a fuss about the photos? It is for the domestic audiences: to keep the struggle against the PKK and the YPG alive.”
An expert on Middle East and global jihadi movements, Mete Sohtaoglu, emphasized that the release of the photos is a signal to Turkey. “They are perceived as a moment of betrayal of an ally. This will push Turkey toward Russia,” Sohtaoglu told Al-Monitor.
Ahmet Ay, a researcher and writer, expressed a similar perspective to Al-Monitor. He said, “Since 2012, Turkey is able to produce its own policies. We no longer owe money to the IMF. Turkey has switched from a ‘yes, sir’ to a ‘no, man’ policy toward NATO, and this is worrisome for the United States. There have been several attempts to curtail Turkey’s growth, including US support to IS and the YPG. I believe the release of these photos was sanctioned by the United States, not accidental. It was to send a message to Turkey given the current struggle Turkey is having with its own Kurdish population. Now that Turkey will no longer serve as the US outpost, the United States is utilizing the YPG.”
Ridvan Kaya, the chairman of the nongovernmental organization Ozgur-Der and a columnist for Haksoz, approached the issue from a slightly different perspective, asking why the United States and the YPG were fighting in Raqqa rather than Aleppo or Idlib where residents were dying rapidly. “The real issue is not the patches, but the joint operations. The YPG representing the generic nationalist movement could score some points. However, where would these operations put them against the Arabs in the region? The photos are a message to honor the YPG as a collaborator. Imperialistic powers always utilize such theatrical moments. And, of course, it aims to push Turkey into a corner and to decrease its bargaining powers,” Kaya told Al-Monitor.
Hilmi Demir, a professor of theology from Hittite University who specializes in Salafi movements, told Al-Monitor that US plans could backfire. “US policy to focus exclusively on IS to bring stability to the region is misguided. Sunni Arabs and Turkmens are excluded from the fight against IS, and those photos of US soldiers with YPG patches were a disappointment to these groups as well as to the Turks. Alienating these groups, which have been struggling against IS on their own, would only generate further chaos in the region.” Demir provided a poignant example to highlight the difference in approaches, saying, “Just observe the bias in the news about foreign fighters joining IS and the YPG. This double standard plays into the hands of IS. In addition, it could contribute to further radicalization of Salafi movements, which are spreading all over the Muslim world. These photos declare that the United States has chosen the YPG as the main actor in the fight against IS. This choice could mean ultranationalist Turkish youths as well as pious Muslim youth groups may look on IS more favorably.”
Anti-Kurdish and anti-American sentiments are growing stronger in Turkey, making it all the more difficult for Erdogan to implement the widely expected change in his failed Syria policy and a possible peace process with the Kurds. In the meantime, those photos will be used to recruit new members for IS and other Salafi groups in the region.