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US and British volunteers describe fighting with Kurds in Syria

Three volunteer fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) recounted their experience to a mostly Kurdish audience in London
Syrian refugees flee to the Turkish border in June as YPG forces clash with Islamic State in Tal Abyad (MEE/Ibrahim Khader)

LONDON - As the three men made their way to the stage at the Kurdish Community Centre, ear-splitting cheers, whistles, ululations and thunderous applause filled the room. Everyone, old and young, was on their feet and, gradually, the noise fell away to chants: “Long live the resistance of the YPG! Long live the resistance of the YPJ!”

The men, who just returned from fighting with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Kobane, beamed before a solemn silence fell and the audience, still standing, bowed their heads for a moment's silence, to remember their people and comrades who have fallen in battle.

In 2012, soon after the Syrian civil war started, the Kurds managed to claim Kobane - a Syrian town just south of the Turkish border called Ain al-Arab in Arabic - under their autonomous control. It became the unofficial capital of Rojava, the name Syrian Kurds have given to areas in northern Syria where they have wrested control since the war began.

Last year, Kobane gained worldwide media attention when the Islamic State (IS) group besieged the city. By late January, YPG and YPJ (Women's Protection Units) forces pushed IS out. Meanwhile, the YPG have expanded into further Syrian territory as it continues to battle against IS. 

‘An honour to fight with YPG’

The Kurds’ battle has attracted international attention and fighters from around the world. In October 2014, the YPG created a Facebook page called the “Lions of Rojava” to recruit foreign fighters. It is not known how many international fighters are active within the group, but it has managed to attract men from the US, Australia and Europe.

One of the men on stage, a 28-year-old British national who goes by the nom de guerre Macer Gifford, left England in December 2014 and spent five months fighting IS with the YPG.

“It was the easiest decision of my life,” Gifford said as the room was filled with applause again.

Gifford began fighting on the frontlines in February in Tal Hamis, a town in northeast Syria which the Kurds later took control of on 11 March, assisted by the US-led coalition airstrikes against IS.

He made headlines during an interview with the Daily Mail, where he vowed that IS would never take him alive.

“I have left my family and a comfortable life in Britain to risk suffering the most horrific death at the hands of IS,” he said at the time. “I’ve got a grenade in my pocket and I’ll blow myself up and take them with me."

A second man, 22-year-old Jac Holmes from Bournemouth, was shot and injured by IS while fighting in northern Syria.

“It was a pleasure and an honour to fight with [the YPG] and be integrated in their way of life,” Holmes said. “It was great to go to Rojava. I have nothing but good things to say about the YPG and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party].”

Under British law, any national that leaves to fight with “terrorist groups” and comes back is arrested upon arrival, yet fighters with the “Lions of Rojava” have not faced the same fate, despite the ideological links between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish political party with which the YPG is associated, to the PKK.

The two-pronged attack

Turkey’s latest two-pronged military campaign against both IS and the PKK have exacerbated tensions with the Kurds. Both the Turkish government and the PKK have signalled in recent days that their ceasefire, in place since March 2013, may be coming to an end. 

Many Kurds have long accused that the Turkish government of actively colluding with IS at their expense. Turkey recently announced its intention to become an active member of the US-led anti-IS coalition airstrikes in Syria after a suicide bomb attack killed 32 people in the border town of Suruc. The bombing targeted a group of young activists who were planning on travelling to Kobane, only 10km from Suruc, to help rebuild it.

Some analysts have said they believe that Turkey is more intent on crushing the PKK, designated as a terrorist group by the US, EU and NATO, than defeating IS.

“One of [Turkey’s] primary aims will be to deny the YPG control of a large contiguous area across the soft Turkish underbelly near its own restive Kurdish areas,” Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC told Middle East Eye.

“In effect, Turkey had relied on IS to deny this to the PKK by holding the territory. Not only is IS attacking inside Turkey now, perhaps even more significantly, it is failing to prevent the PKK, Ankara’s main enemy, from expanding into that area," Ibish said.

“Turkey is, therefore, preparing to push IS aside and do the job itself,” he concluded.

Fighting for 'all of humanity'

Jordan Matson, an American from Wisconsin, told the community centre audience that he fought with the YPG for 10 months after joining them last September. He said he was one of the first people to open a safe corridor for the besieged Yazidi people, who were trapped on Mount Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan by IS.

“The YPG are the only secular group fighting in Syria,” he declared.

On describing his time with the Kurds on the ground, he said: “We fight, we sit, we drink shay [tea] - that’s pretty much our day.”

Alan Semo, the PYD representative in the UK, praised the three men for putting their lives on the line for the Kurdish people.

“We appreciate their efforts and sacrifices they did not just for Kurds but for all of humanity,” he said.

The three fighters, however, were also challenged on the evening to discuss the more contentious activities of their adopted fighting force.

One question from an audience member about allegations that the YPG were involved in acts of ethnic cleansing and recruiting child soldiers was ignored the first time. At the audience member’s insistence, the three men gave similar answers, asserting that they had never witnessed such acts.

Matson even went as far as to accuse the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who along with other international human rights organisations reported that Kurds had ethnically cleansed Arabs, as “allied to the Syrian regime".

Gifford suspected that Arab rebel groups were behind these charges “out of jealousy because the YPG are getting more support from the US".

Holmes also said that, despite not witnessing this with his own eyes, there is substantial documentation to prove that Turkey collaborates with IS.

“Turkey would illuminate YPG positions [on the border] with spotlights so IS could know where they are,” he said.

The three volunteer fighters offered advice to the younger members in the audience, who asked what role they could play in supporting the YPG in Syria.

“They don’t need young British Kurds to go fight,” Gifford replied. “They need them on the ground to raise awareness.”

No regrets

When asked why the men left, they said that the goal of “liberating the cantons” in Kobane had been achieved, and that they wanted to go back in a month or two.

“We liberated a lot of land,” said Holmes, wearing a camouflage vest over his red sweatshirt and a checkered scarf across his chest. “We spent a lot of time on the road which was mentally exhausting if anything. They always told us to leave whenever we wanted.”

“I have a lot of meetings lined up with US senators and lobbyists,” said Matson, adding that it is imperative to “push for Republican support” and collect funds for the Kurdish forces.

The men contended that the reason why the YPG had recaptured more square kilometres from IS than any other rebel group despite their less sophisticated weaponry was exactly the reason why they were fighting: for a new inclusive ideology and a way of life. They also praised the YPJ force for their progressiveness in a “region that oppresses women".

“Do I regret fighting with the YPG?” Matson repeated the question, then leaned back from the microphone and roared out, “No!”

The audience went wild.