Less than a year after U.S. special operations forces sparked an international controversy when they were photographed wearing patches representing a Syrian Kurdish militia group, it has emerged that this same militia is now armed with sensitive U.S. weaponry and equipment in its fight against ISIS, though the Pentagon denies supplying it.
The militia in question, known as the People’s Protection Unit or YPG, is considered a terrorist group by Turkey — a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group, but a country where, following a failed coup attempt last summer, much of the population suspected the Central Intelligence Agency and an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania as the culprits.
Photos of YPG fighters armed with weaponry and equipment issued in the past to U.S. Marine Corps special operations personnel apparently first surfaced on social media in March.
“The gear includes U.S.-manufactured night-vision goggles, rifles and advanced optics among other items, the same as that used by American special operations forces and the foreign commando units they train,” Shawn Snow of the Military Times reports.
“While the Pentagon acknowledges arming some allies inside Syria, typically with AK-47 assault rifles and other basic Russian-made weapons, U.S. military officials denied providing anything to the YPG and offered only ambiguous responses when asked by Military Times how such sensitive equipment was obtained by the group’s commando force, called Yekineyen Anti-terror, or YAT,” Snow writes. “It was likely funneled to them through ‘other means by other sources,’ a defense official said, insisting on anonymity because the matter remains fraught with diplomatic implications.”
It is unclear what “other sources” besides the Defense Department are most likely to have provided the equipment.
“The U.S. is authorized to sell night vision equipment only to approved states, not militia groups,” Snow notes. “Defense officials who spoke to Military Times suggested there are myriad ways this equipment could have been acquired by the YPG, including through the black market. It’s also possible, officials said, that the gear was stolen when Iraqi military facilities fell to ISIS beginning in 2014.”
It is certainly conceivable that U.S. weaponry shipped into the region to supply groups fighting ISIS could emerge on the black market. It has happened before, after all. But the Pentagon apparently denies that the gear was funneled to the Syrian Kurdish forces through a third-party non-NATO country with the authorization to buy it, such as Ukraine.
“The Department of Defense does not provide weapons to the YPG, directly or via intermediaries,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, reportedly said. “We have no indications that Iraqi (Kurdish) Peshmerga forces have transferred U.S. equipment to the YPG.”
Despite the Defense Department’s strong denial, though, there are other ways that the U.S. could covertly be providing the equipment. As Snow points out:
Though the Pentagon says it’s prohibited from arming the YPG, there are no such restrictions on the CIA or the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, said Seth Binder, who researches security assistance and U.S. arms deals at the Center for International Policy in Washington. JSOC, like the CIA, is a clandestine organization that can function under Title 50 of the U.S. Code and conduct covert operations in the interest of U.S. national security. A prime example is the 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaida founder and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The CIA declined to address questions from Military Times.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees JSOC, confirmed that some American-made rifle optics and visible lasers have been provided to other Syrian rebel groups, though she declined to specify any particular organizations.
Whether through simple incompetence in distributing equipment (to unreliable parties who then resell it on the black market without authorization) or deliberate deception to conceal a purposeful effort to arm the YPG, there is no denying that the U.S. is ultimately responsible for the militia’s acquisition of these weapons. It makes sense that the U.S. would like to distance itself from this fact, given the potential diplomatic fallout.
Yet no matter how you spin it, revelations that the YPG is using U.S. special operations forces equipment, along with the American government’s awkward attempt to address the issue, highlights the fragile and strained nature of the coalition fighting ISIS’ attempt to hold territory in Iraq and Syria — as well as the lack of a clear plan for what happens when that fight is over.