The US military has ordered its special operations troops based in northern Syria to remove insignia belonging to YPG militants following condemnation from Turkey.
YPG is considered by Turkey as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK - a terrorist group which seeks to impose its Marxist-Leninist ideology on Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Although the PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, the US considers its Syrian affiliate an ally in the fight against DAESH, which has taken advantage of instability in the Middle East to seize swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq.
US troops on the ground in Syria’s Raqqa governorate were pictured this week sporting YPG patches on their uniforms. The troops are in Raqqa advising a military alliance mainly comprised of YPG members called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the incident "unacceptable" while accusing the US of “applying double standards” and “being two-faced."
Turkey, a key US ally against DAESH, has long been lobbying Washington for a different approach to combatting the terrorist group, calling for the establishment of a safe zone along its border in northern Aleppo.
Control of the safe zone, which will extend between Jarabulus and Marea, would then be handed over to the Free Syrian Army once DAESH is cleared from the area with support from the international community.
The YPG, on the other hand, has different plans. They hope to establish a corridor across the ethnically mixed region that Turkey has designated a safe zone.
In attempts to link YPG territory, around the city of Kobane, to the YPG-controlled enclave of Afrin, the group has even taken advantage of Russian air strikes on Syrian opposition forces to make advances.
Turkey has repeatedly warned the YPG not to cross west of the Euphrates river, which separates Kobane from Jarabulus.
Under the banner of the US-backed SDF, the YPG has been strengthening its grip on the predominantly Kurdish regions of northern Syria adjacent to the Turkish border, and recently began its offensive towards the mainly Arab city of Raqqa.
However, due to Turkish pressure, the US has offered no support to the YPG in its quest for northern Aleppo.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters from Baghdad on Friday, US military spokesman Col. Steve Warren said that the US forces were not authorised to wear the YPG patches, calling the gesture “inappropriate” due to “political sensitivities.”
"These guys on the ground do what they're going to do and they have their customs and courtesies that they have been following for years. But it's also important to understand the larger strategic context ... and I think that's the inappropriateness of it, is that they didn't understand that," Warren said."We've made the correction, so everybody's moving on.”
The SDF, which also includes a small number of local Arab and Assyrian militias, was formed after the US abandoned its short-lived train-and-equip programme, which would have seen "moderate" Syrian opposition fighters given the means to take on DAESH before being deployed in Syria.
However, the US was unable to identify a sufficient number of fighters suitable for the programme, and the few who were sent into Syria after being trained in Turkey were kidnapped and stripped of their weapons upon crossing the border.
DAESH advance, thousands trapped
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, DAESH has renewed its offensive in northern Aleppo and are now within 5 kilometres of the city of Azez, a strategic smuggler route close to the Turkish border.
Fighting has been particularly intense around Azez since Russian air strikes significantly weakened opposition forces in the area, allowing the Assad regime, the YPG and DAESH to make gains.
As the frontline closes in, fears are growing for people trapped in the region. International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has evacuated a hospital while a further 20,000 civilians have been displaced after DAESH seized their villages.
"We are terribly concerned... about the estimated 100,000 people trapped between the Turkish border and active front lines," Pablo Marco, the regional operations manager for MSF, told the AFP news agency.
"There is nowhere for people to flee to as the fighting gets closer," Marco said.
As many as 8,500 internally displaced refugees camped along the Turkish border have had to flee as DAESH advances, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said.
The IRC said the DAESH advance has caused refugee numbers on the Turkish border to swell while 160,000 remain trapped in Azez.
Gerry Simpson from Human Rights Watch also estimated the number of Syrians trapped along the closed border to be around 165,000.
Maamoun Khateeb, a journalist from Azez, also told the AFP that some 15,000 people were being besieged by DAESH in Marea. "This is a disaster," Khateeb said.