The US in 2015 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 US special forces said on Friday.
"I was on the formative stage of the relationship with these guys," Army General 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."
"I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere. But it gave them a little bit of credibility," Thomas added.
Name change aimed at legitimising PKK-linked group
The name change was vital to getting the group legitimacy in talks about Syria's future, Thomas said, noting that US 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 sombre 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 US] is fraught with challenges."
Ankara rejects US support for rebranded PKK/PYD
US support for the PKK's Syrian affiliate – the PYD whose armed wing is the YPG – along with several other Arab militia groups under the umbrella of the SDF continues to anger Turkey, which along with the US and EU considers the PKK a terrorist organisation.
The US views the SDF as a "reliable partner" in its fight against Daesh and continues to provide the group with arms and equipment against strong objection by Ankara.
The YPG-dominated SDF now control vast stretches of land along the border northeast of Aleppo and a pocket of territory to the northwest. In between, Turkish-backed factions have taken over territory to keep the SDF and their allies from linking up.
Turkish-backed rebels clashed with SDF fighters on Monday around the village of Ayn-Daqna and the nearby Menagh air base north of Aleppo.
The PKK has waged an armed campaign against Turkey for more than 30 years that has led to the deaths of more than 40,000 people.