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The Western fighters battling the Islamic State

What inspires someone to leave home, join the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Unit and fight the Islamic State in Syria? MEE finds out.
American fighter Richard Jones (R) with a YPG fighter in Ras al-Ayn near the Syrian-Turkish border (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)

RAS AL-AYN, Syria – Hans Schneider disassembles the Kalashnikov he’s worn on his shoulder all day with ease, laying parts down on a ratty blanket in the middle of the cold, cramped living quarters he now calls home. He’s been here in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, for nearly two months now. Life is hard - he misses whole grain bread and his dog back home - but he’s happy to have left his old life as a manager at a laser tag field in Hamburg for his new one, as an armed fighter in Syria’s civil war.

Schneider is one of two-dozen foreign fighters who left the comforts of home to volunteer in Syria with the Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish militia based in al-Hasakah Province, Syria. His aim he says, is to help in the Kurdish struggle against the Islamic State – the Sunni militant extremist group that has established a self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

“The terrorist threat is bigger than we see in the world media, it is not only a threat for this country [Syria] but it is also a threat for other countries,” Schneider tells Middle East Eye, outside of his barracks among four other foreign fighters at the YPG base. “I decided to come here to fight against these barbarians from the point where they start.”

Hans Schneider left Germany to join the Peoples' Protection Unit (YPG) last November (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
Inside, three Americans and another young German sit beside Schneider in a row. All of the men have a military history gained through service with their home countries, though most are hesitant to elaborate. The five men wear a mismatch array of military garb – M16s and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. They are flanked on either side by YPG captains and a public relations officer who all express concern that their foreign recruits may say something that they disapprove of and immediately set out ground rules.

All interviews must be conducted in English so the minders can be sure to understand any words exchanged. Middle East Eye was forbidden to ask anything that may make the fighters feel homesick, how the fighters arrived in Syria or any contacts they may have made before arriving. All five of the men made clear however, that they were in no part associated with the now well-known Lions of Rojava page, an online group that encourages westerners to join the YPG and one which some fighters see as being too focused on publicity.

Ras al-Ayn, where Schneider currently serves, is an important Kurdish town in the Northern Syria region termed “Rojava” by the majority Kurdish population. Islamic State controlled territory stretches between Ras al-Ayn and the now liberated town of Kobane – the border town that has gained international attention as a symbol of the fight between the Kurds and Islamic State – making it currently impossible to connect the Rojava region as one unified Kurdish stronghold.

'They don't deserve to live'

Joining the YPG for Schneider, is not just a personal vendetta against the Islamic State militants he says, rather it is to show support as well for Kurdish self-determination aims in Syria and the surrounding region.

“The Kurds don’t want to take over other countries, the Kurds just want their own country. I think people should research, read, watch everything they can to see what is going on here about the Kurdish freedom movement, the YPG, PKK, and then read about what the Islamic State are doing – they [Islamic State] don’t deserve to live.”

While Schneider has just finished a four week tour on the frontlines, where he experienced combat against Islamic State militants that are determined not to lose more ground in north Syria, most of the foreigners at Schneider’s barracks are used in security roles, rather than in direct combat – a reality that clearly caused some contempt among the westerners.

One foreign fighter who asked to remain anonymous in order to avoid consequences from the YPG, and from his home country – who he believes does not know he has joined the Kurdish militia –  tells MEE that he has been trying to find a way back to Europe after two months in Syria. Unhappiness creeping in after he’d made his way to the war-torn country with the hope of fighting Islamic State militants, but not being allowed to join in on any frontline fighting.

Instead, security duties such as looking after designated VIPs who visit Ras al-Ayn, and manning patrols on the Turkey-Syria border are regular activities dished out to foreigners.

Solidarity above all

Abdul Karim Sarukhan, the Minister of Defence for Rojava, says that while foreigners come to Syria to join the YPG under the impression they will be put straight into frontline fighting, their most useful role is often one of solidarity over anything else. Fighting he says, can come later.

“We don’t want anything to happen to them [the foreign fighters],” Sarukan tells MEE, “I don’t know how to say it to you, we don’t want them to be shot or killed. We [YPG] respect they came here to fight, but we are trying now to protect them until they know this area well and are ready to fight, after this they can go to fight.”

A handful of the foreigners in the YPG have however been utilised in direct combat. Richard Jansen, a Dutch citizen was one of the few foreigners sent to front-line areas in Syria as well as Iraq, where active fire and IEDs are commonplace. In the first week of January, Jansen’s convoy was hit by an Islamic State IED in Sinjar, Iraq. His vehicle exploded, and Jansen took two large pieces of shrapnel to his head, as well as blast wounds to his face and arms.

“We did an operation, and took the shrapnel out of his head, two pieces of the shrapnel were large pieces - we were just hoping for our comrade to live,” Doctor Abat Abu Mohammad tells MEE at the YPG military hospital.

Today, Jansen is recovering at a military hospital in al-Hasakah province. Lying in the military clinic, his head, wrapped in gauze and bandages, Jansen speaks slowly and with heavy emotion.

He is mostly immobile. Despite five days in a coma, the YPG made no contact with Jansen’s family who only became informed of his condition when alerted by MEE – a full week after the IED explosion. Jansen woozily and under medication told MEE that he is not ready to abandon his fight, however Jansen’s father is currently raising funds to bring his son back to Europe so he can receive medical care sufficient for his injuries.

Hans Schneider and Richard Jones walk near a home destroyed by IS militants before they fled (MEE/Abed al-Qaisi)
While Jansen has experienced first hand the deadly effects of the brutal and bloody Syrian civil war, back in Schneider’s barracks in Ras al-Ayn, Richard Jones, a trained American soldier, is itching to serve on the frontlines.

Jones, exudes enthusiasm, wearing a broad smile that suits his energetic, cheery manner. Jones is one of the volunteers looking after YPG designated VIP’s who visit Ras al-Ayn as well as manning internal road checkpoints – a role he says he is happy to undertake, however he hopes to be asked to fight directly against the Islamic State, having already spent two months at the barracks undertaking security work.

“They seemed a little bit reluctant to put the western fighters on the front line,” Jones says disappointed, though he says, he has been working on getting clearance to instead observe the way the YPG conducts combat so he can carry out training roles from his own experience. For Jones however, it is not the Kurdish struggle that has brought him to Syria. He will only be happy to leave Syria once he has fulfilled his ultimate aim – to fight on the frontlines, and kill an Islamic State militant.

“Daesh you can try and kidnap me, you can come to me,” Jones says using the Arabic acronym Daesh for the Islamic State militants. “I’m here, I’m ready, I’m better trained, I will kill you, and if I had it my way I would kill you all. I’ll be out there somewhere hunting you down one by one.”

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