Foreign Fighters Back Kurdish Militia in Syria in Fight Against Turkey
Posted January 27, 2018 2:21 p.m. EST
The men in military fatigues, some covering their faces and clutching assault rifles, stand in an orchard, declaring that they have traveled to a battle zone in northern Syria to defend the Kurdish people.
One speaks with a French accent, another with an American one. Yet another is a Chinese-British citizen, who later confirmed in an interview by phone that he was in Syria, in the area at the center of the battle with Turkey.
The men in the video, posted to YouTube on Friday, come from seemingly diverse backgrounds. Yet all identify themselves by their Kurdish noms de guerre, adopted after they voluntarily joined a militia in one of the world’s most dangerous war zones.
They are among the dozens of fighters from around the globe who have joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known by the Kurdish initials YPG, to take up arms in the fight in Syria. They say they are there to help Kurds, a group that has long been marginalized, without a nation of their own, but that gained control of territory in the Syrian conflict.
While the Kurds in Syria were partners with the United States in fighting the Islamic State, reclaiming villages and cities from the extremist group, they are facing a new twist in the latest complex chapter of the conflict. Turkey says the Kurds in control of the enclave of Afrin, in Idlib province in northern Syria, are a terrorist threat, and the Turks have recently launched an offensive to dislodge them.
Now, some of those fighting alongside the Kurds are vowing to fight against Turkey. For the Westerners, their personal support for the group’s vision has largely fit with the interests of the U.S.-led coalition for much of the war. The United States provides material support and training to the Syrian Defense Forces — dominated by the Kurdish fighters — in their campaign against the Islamic State. But Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization because many of its leaders have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, putting the Western fighters directly at odds with a NATO ally.
Here’s what you need to know about the foreigners in the YPG and what they are doing in Syria.
How are foreigners joining the militia?
Throughout the Syrian war, Kurdish militias have made themselves accessible to Westerners looking to join the fight, welcoming them to Syria and giving them training. The militia members have an active social media presence geared toward international recruits, and they regularly post updates, often in English, focusing not just on warfare but also on their vision for an autonomous Kurdish society. They call their movement the Rojava revolution, the name the Kurds have given to the region in northeastern Syria they control.
According to accounts from international fighters and their families, and the YPG’s website, recruits make contact with a representative online, and then move the conversation onto encrypted messaging apps. There, they arrange travel to the area, typically entering Syria through the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
In August, recruiters sent a group message on WhatsApp urging “international volunteers who wants to join YPG/YPJ and SDF” to arrive in Iraqi Kurdistan before the end of the month. The message was signed, “Revolutionary regards.”
They do not head straight for the battlefield, however. Nouri Mahmoud, a spokesman for the YPG based in Ain Issa in northeastern Syria, said foreigners join local Kurdish soldiers only after receiving ideological, military and language training. “They are trained on how to adapt to the communities,” he said.
How many foreigners are still with the Kurds?
Exact figures for those fighting with the YPG, as well as with the broader Syrian Defense Forces coalition, are unclear. Mahmoud said there were dozens of foreigners in the YPG, but he could not give an accurate total.
The State Department was equally vague when asked about the number of Americans who had traveled to Syria to join Kurdish militias.
“U.S. citizens are not required to register their travel to a foreign country with us, so we cannot track how many U.S. citizens have gone to a specific country,” a State Department spokesman said by email. “The U.S. government particularly warns private U.S. citizens against traveling to Syria to engage in armed conflict.”
But despite the risks, people have been making the trip for several years. Brusk Hasaka, a spokesman for the Syrian Defense Forces in Afrin, said that there were 150 foreign fighters in their ranks, which include YPG fighters.
“We have Americans, British, Japanese, Algerians — even Chinese,” Hasaka said, adding that many were eager to fight in Afrin. “It’s not obligatory for them, but they feel they have a duty toward us,” he said. “There is something called justice and injustice.”
Why has the Kurdish fight drawn in Westerners?
For many Westerners who joined YPG, the leftist ideology of the Rojava revolution was appealing. With a focus on women’s rights, democracy and freedom of religion, Kurdish forces envision being able to achieve a level of autonomy for Kurds in the region. Critics argue that their initiative in northern Syria could alienate or displace ethnic Arab communities.
Even though many Westerners who have joined the fight are not of Kurdish descent, they identify with the promise of a Kurdish state. Friends and family of Robert Grodt, an American who died while fighting for the YPG near Raqqa, Syria, in 2017, say he was driven to join the cause because he believed deeply in the leftist ideals of the Kurds.
Ron Kuby, a friend of Grodt and a lawyer representing his family, said Grodt had found meaning in the group.
“Rob felt a moral imperative to fight injustice and fight oppression and to work to build a better world, and certainly the Rojava revolution has attracted a number of people,” Kuby said in an interview shortly after Grodt’s death. “He was not a militarist, it was just a very a clear fight between right and wrong.”
Grodt’s mother and sisters said he believed in the politics of the movement and wanted to help build a Kurdish society. He initially told his family that he planned to be a medic and would not be on the front line, but that soon changed. In phone calls home, he described the “academy” in Syria where he received military training. He soon found himself fighting the Islamic State.
For those who do survive the war, more conflict could await them if they decide to return home. In both Britain and the United States, returnees face likely scrutiny from law enforcement agencies in connection with their time in Syria, and they could potentially face prosecution.
One of the men seen in two recent clips posted by the YPG, identified by the BBC as a British citizen of Chinese descent named Huang Lei, said that he was aware of the possible legal consequences if he returned to Britain.
“I really hope I can return, but I don’t want to come back and get arrested,” Lei told the BBC. “I am here to fight against terrorists. I don’t want to come back home and become a terrorist.”
Contacted by phone, Lei confirmed that he had reached Afrin, but said he was unable to say more because the area he was in had recently been bombed.