Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Taking on Islamic State

Mike McEvoy travels to Syria to meet an eclectic bunch of foreign fighters united in their hatred of the horrors meted out by Islamic State

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“So long as heval Obama does what he’s supposed to do, tomorrow we’ll march to victory,” says Commander Soran, speaking about the US-led coalition air strikes he hopes will hit nearby Islamic State (IS) positions. He uses the Kurdish word heval, meaning friend or comrade, to refer to US President Barack Obama.

The 35-year-old commander stands under an oil lamp in an abandoned Christian village in northeastern Syria. He is trying to reassure his men, Kurdish fighters from the Kurdish YPG Party’s People’s Protection Units, that their offensive on a nearby IS-held village will go according to plan.

But after days of heavy fighting his troops are exhausted. Many are already asleep, wrapped in blankets found in abandoned houses. Unlike some of his comrades, Commander Soran has not spent his life on the frontlines. In fact, until a few years ago he was living and working on a fruit farm in the English countryside.

It was the war in Syria and the expansion of IS threatening to overrun his native Kurdistan that prompted him to return to Syria and fight. He’s not the only one to have felt the call. Alongside him are a small band of Western volunteers — mainly British and American — who have forgone the comforts of the West to join the fight against Islamist militancy in the country.

The Western fighters are young, old, pious, atheist, anarchist and conservative. They are army veterans, artists, activists. Few have much in common other than a shared hatred of IS and, in most cases, a respect for the Kurds.

One of the volunteers, heval “Kamal” (the Kurdish name given to him by the YPG) used to work in sales in the US. After witnessing the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, he decided to join US airborne forces and was among the first soldiers to land in Iraq during the US-led invasion in 2003.

While on deployment in Iraq, Kamal came into contact with several Kurds and was struck by what he describes as their “kindness and bravery.” When the chance to fight with the Kurds against IS presented itself last year, he says the decision was straightforward.

“I had no children, wasn’t married and had very few possessions to my name. It’s a lot easier to come out here when there’s not much tying you down back home,” he said.

Kamal has been fighting with the Kurds for around six months and says he has no plans to return to America. Watching him share a joke with his Kurdish comrades, it’s clear that Kamal has managed to gain their respect. Having watched him risk his life several times to retrieve injured Kurdish fighters, Commander Soran now keeps him close by his side in battle.

Kamal sees his integration into the Kurdish fighters as an essential part of his involvement in the fight. But other Western volunteers fighting in Syria do not assimilate so well, according to Macer Gifford, or heval “Baran”, a British national who fought in Syria before recently returning to the UK.

“I’m sorry to say that there is the odd one or two who come with completely the wrong attitude,” he said. “They don’t integrate with the Kurds and are obsessed with getting into the fight against IS. People often don’t understand that when they come out here, fighting IS is only a part of it. You have to realise that you can’t come here and operate as a lone wolf — it’s as much about becoming part of a movement as it is about combatting IS.”

Gifford says that “lone wolf” volunteers tend not to last long. Many simply get sent home by the YPG. Some Western fighters also do not see eye to eye with the YPG when it comes to politics.

Formed in 2004, but only really active since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the YPG are closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a formerly Marxist-Leninist movement branded a terrorist group by the EU in 2002.

The image of Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, affectionately known as “Apo” (uncle) by his followers, can be seen in shop windows, on car bumper stickers and even tattooed on fighters’ chests across Syrian Kurdistan.

Some Westerners are not left-leaning and bemoan the fact that Ocalan’s “democratic confederalism”, which espouses a libertarian socialist ideology derived from the writings of the US anarchist Murray Bookchin, is drilled into them by their Kurdish instructors during their initial training.

For one Western recruit, a British fighter named “Shiyar”, however, politics is of secondary importance. Laid out on the operating table of a field hospital on the outskirts of Al-Hasakeh city in northeastern Syria, Shiyar writhes in pain as a Kurdish doctor stitches a shrapnel wound on the back of his head, the result of a rocket strike on a Russian-made armoured personnel carrier he was riding in.

As the morphine wears off, Shiyar becomes more alert. “What happened? Did we take the village,” he asks, sitting up.

“No mate, they beat us back this time,” replies a fellow fighter, also British, with a grimace.

Commander Soran says he has seen foreign volunteers come and go. Often their impact is more symbolic than anything else, and many of them know this, he says. For the Kurds, however, the fight looks likely to continue for years. Many will not survive to see their dream of a liberated Kurdistan realised.

“In the end you need to be humble,” says heval “Cudi,” a volunteer from Staffordshire in the UK. “This is their fight, not ours. But we can offer them solidarity.”


The writer is an independent documentary filmmaker who served with the British army in Afghanistan and Libya. His latest film, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, follows Afghan army soldiers fighting in Helmand Province in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of British forces.

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