Foreign Fighters in Syria

After five years of a multi-faceted civil war in Syria, estimates of the number dead as of March 17, 2017 range from 320,000 to 450,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; of the five million individuals who have fled the country, about 800,000 are seeking asylum in Europe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. However, bizarrely enough, thousands of Americans and Europeans have migrated in the opposite direction, choosing to involve themselves in a brutal war for a variety of reasons, including ideological and personal ones. 

Many of the foreign ideologues and adventure-seekers are personae non gratae in their home countries, no longer welcome there. For obvious reasons, Western governments are not enthusiastic about their citizens joining the self-declared Islamic State (IS) and other militant groups. For example, Mohimanul Alam Bhuiya, a former student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, traveled to Syria in order to fight for IS in June of 2014. Despite his public repentance only five months later, this former Columbia student is now serving a decades-long prison sentence. 

However, in one area of Syria, foreign fighters are working alongside American and NATO special forces. The People’s Protection Unit (YPG) is a militia operating in northern Syria, affiliated with neither the government of Bashar al-Assad, or the “Free Syrian Army” seeking to overthrow him, although it has worked with both sides in the past. Instead, the YPG is part of a political project called the Democratic Federation of West Kurdistan and North Syria, more commonly known as Rojava, the Kurdish word for West. Rojava and the YPG have attracted foreigners for a variety of reasons: some have ethnic connections to or humanitarian sympathies with the Kurdish people, others are motivated by anarchist or socialist ideals, and still others are seeking adventure—perhaps for the wrong reasons. 

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Rojava is organized along the lines of an ideology called “democratic confederalism,” which calls for decentralized governance, direct democracy, religious freedom, ethnic pluralism, and gender equality. These ideas are generally attractive to a Western audience, but hold specific sway for anti-capitalist leftists, such as anthropologist David Graeber, who sees Rojava as an experiment of the anarchist ideals that he supports. Robert Rênas Amos, a West Virginian who served in a YPG unit called the Chai Boys, says that, while democratic confederalism is similar to anarchism, anarchists should not mistake it for a carbon copy. 

At least in theory, Rojava’s army is organized as democratically as is possible in a military context. It has officially been merged into an alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces but it remains the largest force in northern Syria; there are both local and international battalions, though foreigners are allowed to integrate with local units. Most famously, it boasts an all-female guerrilla force, called the Women’s Defense Unit. 

For obvious reasons, these armed women are an eye-catching symbol of Rojava and the YPG. However, Dilar Dirik, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge active in Kurdish movements, writes in Al Jazeera that those who focus exclusively on these images, “cheapen a legitimate struggle by projecting their bizarre orientalist fantasies on it—and oversimplify the reasons motivating Kurdish women to join the fight.” 

The arming of women is only one part of the ongoing reorganization of society in northern Syria. ARA News reports that laws against female genital mutilation and polygamy are starting to take effect, and workers’ cooperatives and gender-balanced local councils have also been established across Rojava. Activist Enzan Munzur claimed that over 4,000 cooperative communes had been established by February 2017, covering 70 percent of the villages in Rojava. While he has expressed some discomfort over the political suppression of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, Robert Amos, the aforementioned West Virginian fighter, is enthusiastic about democratic confederalism as a whole. “This particularly type of communalism,” he says, “seems to work very well in that environment,” adding that his skepticism was reduced after seeing cooperation between Arabs and Kurds and many victories by the YPG. 

To understand these social changes, we must look a few hundred miles north and a few decades into the past, to Turkey in the 1970s. Kurds, like other ethnic minorities inTurkey, have faced oppression since the fall of the Ottoman dynasty. As Cold War intrigue and escalating street violence between leftists and right-wingers weakened the Turkish government, a group of students led by Abdüllah “Apo” Öcalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978, a group which seeks equal rights and self-determination for Turkey’s Kurdish population. In the decades since its founding, this group has been waging guerrilla warfare, though several ceasefires have punctuated the fighting. The Syrian government, for its part, pursued a two-faced policy towards these national aspirations. In order to weaken its northern neighbor Syria armed and trained the PKK between 1984 and 1998, according to NOW Media. At the same time, the Syrian government used the results of a 1962 census, deemed “arbitrary” by Human Rights Watch, to strip thousands of Kurds of their citizenship. By providing Arabic-only schooling and encouraging the movement of Arab settlers into traditionally Kurdish lands, Syria attempted to assimilate its Kurdish areas.

In the early 2000s, following the cessation of Syrian support and the arrest of founder Apo Öcalan, the PKK experienced a period of decline, which resulted in infighting and desperation—and, ultimately, a change in perspective. According to pro-PKK sources, Öcalan underwent an ideological shift in prison, inspired by the anarchist writer Murray Bookchin, and abandoned Marxist-Leninist nationalism. In reality, it is likely that the PKK was inspired by the popularity of the Zapatista rebels in Mexico and seeking more foreign support. Either way, the PKK officially adopted democratic confederalism in 2005.

Rojava emerged with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. A group called the Democratic Union Party, organized along pro-PKK lines, had been operating underground since a 2004 soccer riot turned uprising had occurred in Qamishli. On July 20, 2012, the Party announced the formation of the YPG, which then “liberated” cities across Syrian Kurdistan over the next few days. According to Rûdaw News, the Syrian military evacuated the area without a fight. The result was the declaration of Rojava as a self-ruled region.

Western praise for Rojava, however, coincided with the rise of IS. During its initial conquests in June 2014, the terror group surrounded Şengal, the homeland of the Êzîdî religious minority in Iraq. Declaring the Êzîdî faith heretical, IS attempted to wipe it out completely. New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi reported atrocities, ranging from kidnappings and mass murder to violent, systematic sexual abuse of Êzîdî women. After neither Iraq’s central government nor Iraqi Kurdish forces were able to prevent the genocide, the YPG and PKK intervened. They broke the siege on Şengal, freeing thousands of survivors. Amos, who fought for the YPG for six months in 2015, cites the Battle of Şengal as his primary motivation for volunteering. He was a graduate student conducting field research in Jerusalem when he first heard of the atrocities committed by IS.

“I wasn’t sure if it was real. But then my skepticism was proven wrong when I saw the images coming out of Şengal,” he tells me in a phone interview, “Every evening, every morning, I’d listen to BBC, wondering what’s going to happen next. Then I heard about the YPG [that] came across the border, and basically saved these people that were up in the mountains.” Amos soon contacted Jordan Matson, the first American to publicly travel in Rojava, though Amos claims that there was one earlier volunteer who never went public. Matson was a retired Marine who had decided to enlist in the YPG and had founded a Facebook page to facilitate foreign fighters, called the Lions of Rojava. Many of these early foreign fighters were military veterans, but Amos was not among them.

Amos claims that the majority of foreign volunteers at the time, like himself, were motivated by humanitarianism rather than ideology, although he has also interacted with a large number of anarchists from the United States and Europe. Guy, one such anarchist who traveled to Rojava in the summer of 2016, also cites a battle, the Battle of Sinjar, as a primary motivation for his joining. Guy was always interested in what he calls “internationalism,” and he had been exposed to organizers from a variety of global anti-capitalist movements, from Mexico to Nigeria, through his participation the Occupy Wallstreet movement. Guy began to follow Rojava and the YPG on the Internet and was especially awed hearing about the Battle of Sinjar; he tells me in an interview while on leave in New York that “it was like a Warsaw Uprising that was successful.”

Guy also gave an interview to the Village Voice in June 2016 before successfully traveling to Rojava that summer. He is vague with me about his exact role, although he acknowledges participating in both the unarmed Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) and the armed YPG.

Guy adopted the nom de guerre of Bakûr Debs, after the American socialist leader Eugene Debs, who ran for president multiple times, once while serving time in prison for sedition during World War I. He tells me an inverse version of Amos’s story, that although humanitarian and ex-military fighters were common in the international ranks, the majority was composed of anti-capitalist leftists. This difference could mean that the YPG changed over the few months separating the tours of these two men. Americans and Europeans are not the only foreigners fighting for the YPG. During the siege of Kobanê, in which the YPG and a few smaller, local militias defended a city from IS between September 2014 and March 2015, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented about 2,000 deaths. Many of those killed were Iranian and Turkish nationals.

Some of these casualties were no doubt ethnic Kurds from those respective countries, which both have large Kurdish-speaking minorities. Amos suspects that the most experienced YPG fighters are veterans of the insurgencies in Turkey and Iran. Guy even recalls interacting with English-speaking,diaspora Kurds during his basic training. Kurds in the YPG are not foreign fighters in the sense that Amos or Guy are, but they do return home with connections, ideology, and training.

Indeed, a few non-Kurds from Iran, with motivations just as varied as those of the Americans and Syrians, have now joined the YPG. Amos affectionately remembers his friend “heval [comrade] Ariel Pythagoras,” the nom de guerre of Hossein Karimi, an Iranian who was killed in May 2015 fighting alongside Amos in the Battle of Serekaniye. Amos says that Ariel, like himself, was motivated largely by humanitarianism. The troops of Iranian foreign fighters did, however, include many avowed leftists among their ranks; Guy mentions fighting alongside an Iranian Marxist. Leftists from Turkey, another country with a large Kurdish minority, led the wave of explicitly anti-capitalist volunteers. Founded by Turkish leftists, the Birleşik .zgürlük Gü.leri (United Freedom Forces) joined the defenders of Kobanê in December 2014. They were followed by other left-wing militias organized along lines of nationality, such as the Bob Crow Brigade, named for a British communist union organizer, and Reconstrucción Comunista (Communist Reconstruction) from Spain. Guy’s comparisons between the YPG and the international defense of the Second Spanish Republic and 1936 are fitting; Reconstrucción Comunista actually flies the flag of the Republic. Guy tells me the shift towards a leftist narrative in the international brigades was a deliberate decision by YPG leadership, prompted by some of the problems brought on by the growing international brigades. One was that the humanitarian volunteers, for all their good intentions, were beginning to drown out the explicit political aims of the Rojava movement. Because there was less need for experienced veterans over time, the YPG began to focus on recruiting ideological believers instead.

“Especially now in the current climate, there’s sort of the great polarization. And they want everyone to know which side they stand on,” Guy says. “I think they’re firmly doing that in public opinion. The narrative is quickly changing from ex-military to leftists.” Within this narrative, there is room for difference of opinion; the YPG will accept recruits “even if you just vaguely believe in democratic confederalism—you don’t have to be a revolutionary leftist,” according to Guy. Amos even tells me of friendly debates between self-described “Marxist-Leninists” and a Russian anarchist volunteer.

Another problem was more sinister. Guy explains that a basic level of ideological screening helps to ensure the emotional stability of recruits. He alludes to “well-documented” incidents involving vigilantes and adventure-seekers, although he will not get into specifics. Amos tells me about some occurrences: one fighter declared himself an officer and tried to fight a Kurdish general, while another threw a tantrum and fired his gun over a lack of fast food. He explains that part of the problem arose from cultural and linguistic barriers, as Kurdish officers could not tell when Americans were acting “off.”

“There were some people that came that didn’t get weeded out,” Amos warns me. “People that you probably wouldn’t want to sleep next to.” Michael Enright, a British actor who joined the YPG, was considered such a threat by his fellow fighters that some of them singled him out to the New York Times, and Jordan Matson even publicly begged authorities on Facebook to remove him.

On the other hand, Guy and Amos emphasize that the majority of volunteers were well-intentioned. While Guy is wary of “the young man finding himself routine sorta thing,” he does believe that his participation in the YPG was personally beneficial. “When you join a military and you fight for something, it ingrains it in you for the rest of your life,” he explains, “and it helps build ties to people and movements.”

Although Amos denies being very politically affected by Rojava, it is not so apparent that this is true. He cites writings from the PKK founder Apo Öcalan—but with a little skepticism. He also acknowledges a newfound respect for his comrades, although he thinks that their ideals can be a little unrealistic: “Anyone who has a fear of communism or anarchy should be completely unalarmed by this group, because they’re not really like that at all.” On September 2, 2016, Amos heckled former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign rally. He complained about an American “betrayal” of the YPG and US complicity in Turkey’s war against the Kurds. Afterwards, Amos formed a group called the American Veterans of the Kurdish Armed Forces, in order to lobby the US government in support of Rojava. Thanks to its foreign volunteers, the democratic confederalist movement now has connections overseas.

While no Americans have been prosecuted for joining the YPG, the US government is not thrilled about its citizens participating. In a press briefing in October 2014, State Department official Jen Psaki told reporters that the US government discourages anyone from fighting for the YPG, even though she is not aware of any law doing so. The PKK itself remains listed as a terrorist organization. And an American veteran of the YPG who asked not tobe named recalls that he was once interrogated by Homeland Security officials.

Other Western countries have prosecuted their citizens for joining the YPG. Amir Taaki, a Bitcoin coder and self-described anarchist from Britain, told Wired in March 2017 about the months of legal troubles he has faced since his return. Others have even been imprisoned, such as the Kurdish-British teenager Silhan Özçilek. She was found guilty of terrorism-related offenses on November 20, 2015, and has been sentenced to 21 months imprisonment. Amos was banned from Jordan and Israel for his troubles, although he does not seem to regret his choices. The seriousness of these incidents strongly contrasts with the story of PissPigGranddad. The communist- themed Twitter meme page, also called LENIN_LOVER69, suddenly surprised its fans when the administrator, Brace Belden, posted a selfie from Syria on October 23, 2016. Ever since, he has posted a downright bizarre combination of serious political content and crass humor. Unsurprisingly, this has attracted a lot of attention. Rolling Stone eventually published his story, and Jake Gyllenhall’s production company announced that it would write a movie based on the article. According to the Washington Post, Belden now plans to leave Rojava. This is partly because of the participation of US special forces on the front lines near Raqqa, the capital of IS; Belden considers these troops an affront to Rojava’s socialist credentials. But, perhaps more importantly, Belden has a mission in the United States—to stop the “fucking bullshit” movie about him from being produced.