Somewhere In Syria (TFC) – Months have passed since the first pictures of US special forces operatives surfaced from inside Syria. Their disclosure via an unidentified photographer, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, was followed by disciplinary action by US officials. Questions still persist; not only about what they show, but also how numerous others depicting the same unit arrived on the web. The images themselves challenge the official narrative of how the originals were captured, and from where.
It was originally reported that a photographer encountered the shady squad with Kurdish rebels nearby. Some of those fighters appear in photos taken by the journalist, reputedly employed with “Agency-France Presse”. Officials say the fighters were pushing against Islamic State positions near their de facto capital of Raqqa. The findings surprised some, as Syria was supposed to be largely void of western media.
No statement directly from the photographer themself, nor their employer has surfaced. It was reported that the Americans wouldn’t speak to the journalist, walking past as if they weren’t there.
None wore proper name tags, one instead sporting a label reading “hate”. Their unit is unknown, and both Kurdish and American flags–but no division markers–adorned their fatigues. Their clothing didn’t even indicate rank. A Pentagon colonel first called the patches symbolic of solidarity, and then “unauthorized” days later. Those men were reputedly ordered to remove the patches, but no confirmation has surfaced.
The story dips down the rabbit hole once photos seemingly depicting the same unit continued to pop up across the web. It’s still unknown how they ended up there, through a leak or otherwise. Some showed soldiers standing near men in black masks and fatigues labeled as “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) by various articles. These photos were credited to “Getty Images” rather than individual photographers.
SDF is actually a coalition of Arab, Kurdish, and other fighting groups. It arose during 2015 after groups like the “moderate” FSA were wiped out, and ISIS sprang forth. SDF fighters vary in appearance including gender, age, and ethnicity.
However, a lengthy web search came up with no SDF photos resembling the black hooded men. Not only do typical SDF units simply not wear all black, but they lack the physical uniformity of these men. Granted, fighters from groups worldwide may sport black masks to hide their identities. However, the men seen with the US forces are not only uniform in wardrobe, but physical build as well.
Other suspicious details involve the photographer(s) themselves, including where exactly they were. Reports indicate they were in the village of Fatisah, outside ISIS controlled Raqqa. No villagers were photographed alongside the US soldiers during the reputedly intense fighting.
US officials denied rebel claims that the operatives fought on the front. Additionally, although structures are visible, it’s unknown if they’re dwellings. Some individuals, assumed to be indigenous fighters, appear in a few shots.
Later photographs, however, reveal the “village” is actually a walled-in compound occupied by armed men. Several guard towers and ladders–likely used as firing positions–are visible in these pictures. The special forces and hooded men are seen in similar pickup trucks, the latter all carrying AK weapons.
Other men in relatively plain clothing–similar to military contractors from Iraq’s 2003 invasion–hovered in the background. Before you take these as US soldiers out of uniform, consider similarly dressed men stood guard outside the compound. The plain clothed men drove SUVs which appeared of a higher quality than the “rebels” and special forces.
A plain clothed man on guard near a non-rebel, unmarked vehicle outside the compound (left). Notice the ladder behind the wall over his right shoulder. Similar vehicles, though with the men in black hoods seen with US special forces (right).
Secondly, two pictures of the same truck with soldiers appear to have been taken at the same time. Notice the image below showing the US soldier alongside hooded men looking directly at the camera. This was one of the first photos released and then provided to the media, alongside ones featuring the man labeled “hate”.
Picture of unidentified men labeled “Syrian Democratic Forces” and US spec ops. The man near the open truck door (left) is standing in an identical or similar position in the right-side picture. Notice plain clothed, armed men (left) towards the far left near the white SUV.
Another photo later surfaced showing the same soldier, looking in the same direction, but from a different angle. Focusing on the hooded men–specifically the one near the open door– reveals they too are positioned the same. One photographer can’t be in two places at once.
Few conclusions could be made initially regarding the nature of the photos. And without a journalist to be questioned, they faded away with the ghost soldiers. Recent protests sparked by Syrian rebels broke that silence, however, and confirmed some suspicions. Namely: That the black hooded men were, in fact, more closely affiliated with US Special Forces than the rebels.
According to Anti-Media, US special forces were expelled from a town after “Free Syrian Army” fighters threatened to slaughter them. The group is reputedly the product of a CIA training program reboot, after another failed. CIA and Pentagon entities have conducted training operations throughout Syria’s warring factions, often training recruits in Turkey. Groups backed by the two American actors shot at each other not too long ago, and continue clashes.
Fighters reputedly called the soldiers “dogs”, accusing them of “invading” and occupying Syria. Video of the exodus surfaced on social media, hours after the pictures were leaked online. The images show crowds of armed fighters chanting as a convoy leaves an unnamed town. It’s unknown if protests were catalyzed by a specific event currently unknown, or stemmed from America’s very presence in Syria.
The Americans were reputedly working alongside Turkish operatives of unknown origin, aiding in a push towards an ISIS town. Rebels who allegedly once welcomed American aid now “won’t accept any American participating alongside us,” yelled one fighter.
Rebel video shows a tense scene, out of which a convoy travels through a crowd of angered militiamen. All chanted, with one in a black mask speaking in Arabic through a loudspeaker. Men, identical to those in hoods which were photographed months ago, occupied the first truck leaving the town. The videos themselves were reputedly leaked to Twitter, spreading from there.
Photos have also surfaced showing a compound–similar to the one depicted months before–with raised American flags. The flags, Anti-Media reports, were allegedly erected by Kurdish fighters to deter Turkish attacks. Although a tense dynamic exists between the Turks, Americans, and Kurds, the compound explanation remains to be confirmed.
This all demonstrates how much of a press black hole Syria has become. Press pools in the embattled country have dwindled down to a few local bloggers tirelessly documenting their people’s plights, or guesstimated humanitarian reports.
More perspective seems to surface via video shot by groups that, while aided by the Americans–and in opposition to Bashar al-Assad–are also hardline jihadists. Combat footage allegedly showing ISIS fighters–professionally combat dressed as they were–charging into their final battle has even surfaced. It may be best for onlookers to take news leaking from Syria with a grain of salt, read in between the lines, and take second looks at each photo.