Patching up differences in the Gray Zone

While US Special Forces are “not on the forward line” in the fight to take back Raqqa from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to a Pentagon spokesman, they are certainly close. Photos from Agence France-Presse published on Thursday, in fact, show US forces in the Syrian village of Fatisah not only assisting Kurdish forces known as the YPG, but wearing patches bearing their logo.

“It’s not uncommon for Special Operations members to wear different or unusual patches, but it is rare to wear patches from another group or nation,” according to NBC News. “Such a gesture is likely to infuriate both Turkish authorities, a U.S. ally that views the YPG as a terrorist organization, and Arab groups who aren’t aligned with the Kurds.”

And indeed, it has done just that. At a press conference Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu did not mince words on the topic of US forces wearing YPG patches.

“Our suggestion to them is that they should also wear Daesh (ISIS), al-Nusra, and al Qaeda insignias during their operations in other regions of Syria,” Cavusoglu said. “They can also wear the Boko Haram insignia when they go to Africa.”

It is the view of Turkish officials that “the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or the YPG, is an armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which both Ankara and Washington have labeled as a terrorist organization,” according to reporting from Foreign Policy. “But the United States supports the YPG, claiming it is Washington’s best chance of beating back Islamic State militants in Syria.”

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal has described the situation even more bluntly, writing that the “PKK and its Syrian affiliate have emerged as Washington’s most effective battlefield partners against Islamic State, also known as ISIS, even though the U.S. and its allies have for decades listed the PKK as a terrorist group.”

When it was first announced last October that Special Forces would be deployed in Syria, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reportedly said the operators would be there as part of a “train, advise and assist mission,” noting specifically that “these forces do not have a combat mission.”

Despite the newly released photos, officials are sticking to their story, although plausible deniability may be wearing thin. “Pentagon officials said the Americans were not involved in any combat role on the ground,” the New York Times reports. “A Syrian militia commander told the photographer that the American troops had fired missiles from the rooftop of a house to destroy a booby-trapped car in the village, a characterization that Pentagon officials challenged.”

The obvious PR and political problems involved in this situation exemplify the kinds of dilemmas discussed in a US Special Operations Command white paper on “The Gray Zone,” dated September 2015 and posted online. The paper defines “gray zone challenges” as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.”

That may sound like a mouthful, but the paper is actually quite candid at times. It notes that it has been more than seven decades since America last formally declared war, but that the military has nonetheless been deployed in combat numerous times since then. “For example, over 40,000 U.S. troops took part in the fourteen-month invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic to prevent it from ‘going Communist’ in 1965-66,” the paper states. “For every traditional war the U.S. military fights, it engages in multiple gray zone operations.”

Although the paper doesn’t mention anything specifically about potential diplomatic fallout from U.S. forces being photographed wearing foreign patches on their uniforms, it notes that “globalization has radically reshaped the way information flows and put technology and communications tools that were once the exclusive purview of nation-states into the hands of individuals.” Presumably, such an appreciation for globalized communication includes an understanding that photojournalists sometimes operate in war zones.

The paper also briefly discusses uniforms, pointing out that “few state and non-state actors are foolish enough to line up uniformed troops and subject them to the full wrath of American military might.”

Overall, the paper is optimistic, concluding that “gray can be good,” and noting that the “ambiguity making gray zones so vexing also makes them useful to statesmen. In fact, they are crucial to the conduct of international relations in defining the importance of situations to the parties involved. That is, states and non-states can ‘test the waters’ with gray zone activities to determine the relative strength of domestic and international commitment to an endeavor without resorting to the more lethal violence of war.”

From the perspective of US Special Operations Command, then, ambiguity is beneficial. The US Special Forces operating in Syria are not there on a combat mission, or as part of a declared war, but are wearing patches on their uniforms representing what is considered a terrorist group by the closest neighboring country, Turkey, which is a US ally. This may send mixed messages and technically violate policy, but who cares about uniforms, anyway? As the white paper points out, they’re going out of style.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, for his part, avoided ambiguity with a clear message for the Americans. “Wearing an insignia of a terrorist organization by U.S. soldiers, who are our ally and are assertive about fighting against terrorism,” Cavusoglu said, “is unacceptable.”



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