By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Since 2014 dozens of volunteers have joined the Kurdish YPG in the war against ISIS. They came from all walks of life and from all over the world, but most of them came from the west. They included Americans, Canadians, British, German, Portuguese, Australian and many other volunteers. Some of their names will never be known. They went, they volunteered and after a short period training and learning about the YPG’s ideology, they went to combat. Some of them served for two years or more. Most came and went after a shorter period of service.
More than two dozen were killed. In July 2015 I called them the “heroes of our generation.” Malak Chabkoun at Al-Jazeera doesn’t agree. She wrote a piece on May 14th titled “Westerners joining the fight against ISIL are no heroes” and sub-headed “Western anti-ISIL fighters volunteering in Syria and Iraq are doing more harm than good. They should go home.” She claims that they “are not performing an act of charity. Aside from putting themselves and others in danger, they are only complicating affairs for Syrians and Iraqis who are already at the mercy of countless international powers and non-state actors.”
The author argues that if the situation were at war and the US, Canada or a European country was at war, “Africans, Arabs or Kurds who joined any side of the fight wouldn’t be treated as kindly by the very same media organisations.” The article purposely latches on to some of the more fringe groups such as Sons of Liberty International or the “socialist Bob Crow Brigade.” She claims that “the US and other Western countries have made it relatively worry-free for their citizens to join these fights.” Her main complaint is that media unfairly glamorizes the westerners while not caring about the local Arabs who fight against Assad. “Syrians themselves, fighting the Assad regime as well as ISIL, are painted as al-Qaeda.”
There is a deeper agenda behind this oped, namely that the sympathies clearly lie with the Syrian rebels. Those who support the rebels and the rebels themselves, have tended to be hostile to the YPG and Kurds in general. That is because there is still an Arab nationalist and sometimes more overtly Islamist streak that is anti-Kurdish and which because of its alliances with Turkey is very anti-PKK. Since the YPG is accused of being part of the PKK, therefore it is seen as bad. Things didn’t start out that way of course, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad treated Kurds brutally, denying them basic rights and persecuting their language. I have spoken to Kurds raised under the regime and they recounted stories of oppression, not being able to speak Kurdish in school, not being able to study Kurdish history. The YPG emerged out of that but it was forged in the war ISIS launched against it in 2014.
Why is the question of who are heroes, Syrian rebels or western volunteers and the YPG, mutually exclusive? For the author of this article and many others it is. It doesn’t have to be that way, one can oppose Assad and support Syrian rebels and support western volunteers and the YPG and SDF’s war on ISIS.
Let’s be honest about the hypocrisy of attacking Western volunteers fighting ISIS while remaining silent about the real elephant in the room: 5,000 ISIS volunteers who came from Europe. There are numerous lists that show the thousands who came from Europe to join ISIS. For every 1 person who joined the YPG and Kurds to fight ISIS from the West there were 50 who joined ISIS. Let that sink in. Westerners had a choice of whether to defend Kurdish rights and women rights in Rojava or join ISIS which promised they could rape and murder women and commit genocide. And for each 50 who said “genocide and rape, great,” there was one who said “genocide and rape, bad.”
Those who hate the YPG and the western volunteers never seem to talk about ISIS crimes. But remember ISIS crimes, look into the faces of the women ISIS sold into slavery. “I remember one of the saddest moments there, during those terrible months, was this little girl, twelve years old. They raped her with no mercy,” recalled one Yazidi woman.
Want to talk about the West and foreign volunteers? They went to rape and murder. Only a handful, only a few good people, went to volunteer to stop rape and genocide. I’ve followed and spoken with and met the foreign fighters over the years, even though I’ve not been to Syria, I covered a few who went to volunteer with the Peshmerga in Iraq. I’ve written about them. They aren’t all heroes, of course, some of them went for different motives. Some were looking to find themselves, some thought there was fame. But most of those who stayed and fought are the salt of the earth kinds of heroes the world needs. If we had more of them, rather than all the people running to join ISIS, an estimated 50,000 volunteers around the world, the world would be better. And ask yourself why the world created 50,000 who want to commit genocide and only a dozens who don’t?
ISIS broadcast the rape and genocide, it showed videos of Camp Speicher massacre. It’s like livestreaming Auschwitz and then saying “join the SS.” And people all over the world, went to join the SS, not join the partisans? But that’s the world in 2014 and today, more people support ISIS than would defend Yazidis from genocide.
Now the author who bashes the western volunteers complains that the media’s view would be different if it were the other way around. But it was the other way around in the 1770s when foreign volunteers came to help America win her independence. Americans also went to volunteer to help the French during their revolution. Americans went to England in 1940 to help fight the Nazis, before their country joined the war. They also went to China to fight the Japanese. At the top of all this were the International Brigades who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War against fascism. Tens of thousands went and many died. Some survivors lived until recently. So when Chabkoun says the media would see it differently if it was a war in Europe and foreign volunteers came to fight ISIS-like Nazism, she is wrong. There was a time when people did go abroad to fight in Europe, or America. Many of those who went to join the YPG or Kurdish Peshmerga believed they were carrying on the tradition of fighting fascism or Nazism. They don’t all have the same ideology. Some of them stand more to the right, some to the left, the radical left, the anarchist left. But what unites them often is a feeling that something had to be done when they saw images of ISIS murdering people and heard about women being sold into slavery.
They have risked prosecution back home, sometimes even on terror charges, despite never doing anything terror related. They know the risks they face, like Kimberley Taylor who recently said “hundreds of us will die in Raqqa.” They have risked all and they have often given their all, like Ryan Lock did. They have also volunteered as medics, like the men of the Free Burma Rangers who volunteered first with the Kurds and now alongside Iraqis in the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Some went back multiple times, like Levi Shirley, before falling in battle. Men like Reece Harding were self-less in their devotion and loved by their comrades.
These are individuals and just a handful of men and women, who went to do what the whole world should have been doing. 68 nations are fighting ISIS, but these volunteers were willing to go to the front to not wait for ISIS to commit more crimes. These were harsh conditions in Syria with no experience of what will happen next when they return, and also with many problems faced trying to return. They have been arrested, deported, charged. And yet they came and fought and volunteered.