Foreigners fighting Islamic State in Syria: who and why?


While illegally crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border, Canadian Peter Douglas was adamant that his incursion was for humanitarian reasons – to help the people of Syria.

Douglas is one of a growing band of foreigners to dodge authorities and join the fight against Islamic State militants who have killed thousands and taken vast parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring a caliphate in territory under their control.

Many of these fighters argue they are there for humanitarian reasons but they say their decision to take up arms to fight for the Syrian people will not be viewed as such by some.

“I want to fight the Islamic State, although it might be the last thing I do,” said Douglas, 66, from Vancouver, as he prepared to board a boat crossing a remote stretch of the Tigris River .

“I know I have 10 years to live before I will start develop dementia or have a stroke so I wanted to do something good,” he added, although he acknowledged that taking up arms was new on the list of jobs and occupations he has previously pursued.

So far an estimated few dozen Westerners have joined Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State in northern Syria, including Americans, Canadians, Germans, and Britons.

The Syrian Kurdish armed faction known as the YPG has not released official numbers confirming foreign or “freedom fighters” and academics say it's hard to assess the total.

But the number pales compared to an estimated 16,000 fighters from about 90 countries to join Islamic State since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of State figures.

The United Nations has warned extremists groups in Syria and Iraq are recruiting foreigners on an “unprecedented scale” and with a commitment to jihad who could “form the core of a new diaspora” and be a threat for years to come.

FIGHTING FOR A CAUSE?

Western governments are closely monitoring foreign fighters but law enforcement agencies are acting differently towards those joining Islamic State or those linking up with the Kurdish resistance whose motivations are far more diverse.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear there is a fundamental difference between fighting for the Kurds and Islamic State. British law stipulates fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offense and depends on circumstances.

Two British military veterans, Jamie Read and James Hughes, returned to England last month after several months with the YPG, saying they were fighting for “humanitarian purposes”, and no action has been taken against them on their return.

They signed up outraged by a series of chilling videos showing the murders of two U.S. journalists, a U.S. aid worker, and two British aid workers and by the plight of millions of Syrians caught between Islamic State and government forces.

British-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, estimates in six months the radical Sunni group has killed about 1,878 people in Syria off the battlefield, mostly civilians.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, which started when President Bashar al-Assad's forces cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

“We went there to help innocent people and to document the YPG struggle against ISIS,” Hughes, 26, who spent five years in the British army, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We had a warm welcome home. Everybody thought we were heroes. They were proud of us. I also received hundreds of messages of people wanting to join the YPG,” he said, adding he planned to return to Syria in coming months.

Still many foreign YPG fighters are concerned about legal repercussions when they return home so seek to stay anonymous.

“We might get in trouble with our governments,” said one U.S. veteran who ensured all his financial and legal affairs were in order before heading to Rojava, the area controlled by the YPG in Syria.

Many are concerned how the media portrays them at home and wanted to clarify they are volunteers, not mercenaries. They say they are not paid but are there as they believe in the cause.

Many have some military experience and have signed up to the battle through contacts on Facebook.

Lorenzo Vidino, an analyst at the Institute for the International Political Studies in Italy, said foreign fighters might argue they are joining the battle against Islamic State for the good but they were not effective militarily.

“Westerners joining the YPG are a very small phenomenon especially if compared to Islamic State. The IS recruitment machine works better and you can see evidence of that in terms of numbers,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

U.S. fighter Dean Parker, 49, joined after watching video footage of the blitz on Sinjar in northwest Iraq in August when Islamic State militants killed or captured thousands of minority Yazidis.

“I saw the fear and terror on this child eyes who was looking directly at me through the camera … I never been moved by anything like that in my life,” he said in an email exchange, one of several foreign fighters from Syria interviewed on location, by email or by phone in November and December.

Canadian-Israeli woman Gill Rosenberg, 31, from Tel Aviv, said in a recent interview with Israel Radio that she decided to join the YPG for humanitarian and ideological reasons.

But not all foreign fighters are motivated by the same cause.

Jordan Matson, 28, a U.S. army veteran from Winconsin who joined the YPG about four months ago, said he joined because he was running away from a “civilian” life he didn't really like.

“Here, instead, everything makes sense,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a YPG base near to Derik, a town in Syria's northeastern Kurdish region.

American fighter joins Kurds in battle against Islamic State


After months in which the United States and European countries issued warnings about their citizens traveling to Syria fight on behalf of Islamic State, there are new reports of Westerners going to fight on the other side, against the militants.

A man who said he is a U.S. citizen and former soldier from Ohio said in a video interview inside Syria that he had come to join Kurdish fighters to battle Islamic State.

Other Americans were also fighting there on behalf of a Syrian Kurdish group, said the man, who identified himself as Brian Wilson and spoke to a freelance photographer working for Reuters in Syria.

“Most people in America are against Daesh of course, Islamic State,” Wilson said, sitting with four Kurdish fighters and dressed in green camouflage clothes in the northeast Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“There are a few Americans who wanted to come here and help the YPG in any way we can,” he said, referring to the main Kurdish group fighting against Islamist militants in Syria.

Wilson is the second American known to have joined the YPG forces. Jordan Matson, a 28-year-old from Wisconsin, is also fighting with the YPG, a spokesman for the armed group said last week. He has given an interview to a Kurdish TV station.

Islamic State tightened its siege of the YPG-held Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on Tuesday despite U.S.-led air strikes meant to weaken the group. The fighting has sent more than 180,000 refugees into Turkey since last month.

The United States has been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq since August and extended the campaign to Syria in September.

Washington is supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Iraq to help them battle Islamic State, but does not have an official policy of helping Kurdish groups in Syria.

Wilson, who looked middle aged and had his head shaved, said he met YPG fighters through “Kurdish contacts”. He said he had not yet engaged in combat.

“Everything has been fine. They're very nice, very accommodating, hospitable. Very good people,” he said of his hosts.

Western countries say scores of their citizens have traveled to Syria to fight on behalf of Islamic State, a phenomenon hammered home in videos showing the beheadings of hostages apparently by a fighter with a British accent.

Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Peter Graff

‘Terrorists’ help U.S. in battle against Islamic State in Iraq


Washington has acquired an unlikely ally in its battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq – a group of fighters it formally classifies as terrorists.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), condemned for its three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, says it played a decisive role in blunting the militants' sweep through Iraq, which triggered U.S. air strikes to halt their advance.

“This war will continue until we finish off the Islamic State,” said Rojhat, a PKK fighter speaking from a hospital bed in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq.

The involvement of the PKK has consequences not only for rival Kurdish factions who failed to stop the Islamic State's advance, but also for Turkey and the international community, which is being lobbied by the PKK to drop the terrorist tag.

Rojhat, 33, was wounded for a third time in the battle to retake the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur from the Islamic State after the militants – deemed too extreme even for al Qaeda – routed the region's vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The first two times he was fighting Turkish forces, part of a conflict which killed 40,000 people between its beginnings in 1984 with demands for Kurdish independence from Turkey and a ceasefire in March 2013.

His role highlights the challenge the PKK represents for Ankara, which still views it as terrorist but feels seriously threatened by the Islamic State, which has seized dozens of its citizens and decapitated an American hostage this week.

Thanks to Rojhat and his comrades-in-arms, residents of Makhmur who fled in terror at an onslaught that threatened Arbil, 60 km (40 miles) away, are now returning to assess the damage.

They have already sprayed over graffiti that reads: “the Islamic State is here to stay”.

“This is not just about Makhmur: this is about Kurdistan,” said PKK commander Sadiq Goyi, seated beneath a banner of the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, referring to Kurdish-inhabited land in Syria and Iran as well as Turkey and Iraq.

“Islamic State is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere”.

An armed sister group of the PKK – People's Defense Units (YPG) – has carved out an autonomous zone in Syria's northeast, successfully fending off attacks by IS militants who have proclaimed a caliphate straddling the frontier with Iraq.

When the militants overran peshmerga positions in northwestern Iraq, YPG fighters crossed over from Syria and evacuated thousands of minority Yazidis left stranded on a mountain with scant food and water.

“The PKK is our hero,” said 26-year-old Hussein, one of hundreds of Yazidis being trained by YPG fighters at several camps inside Syria to fight the Islamic State.

PKK commanders say guerrillas have been dispatched to the front line in the cities of Kirkuk and Jalawla as well. They declined to give numbers and fierce fighting makes their statements hard to verify.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

Turkish security forces began clearing villages suspected of sympathizing with the PKK during the 1990s, displacing thousands of Kurds, some of whom fled to Iraq and eventually settled in a camp in Makhmur, recently turned into a base for PKK guerrillas.

The word “Apo”, nickname for Ocalan, is scrawled on walls around the camp, which held more than 10,000 residents until the Islamic State's incursion.

A lone pair of socks still dangles from a washing line and unpicked grapes have begun to shrivel on the vine. The thud of artillery can be heard from the new front line with the Islamic state, several kilometers away.

The militants' surge towards Kurdistan destroyed the aura of invincibility surrounding the region's peshmerga forces, which had not fought for years and ultimately proved no match for fighters armed with weapons plundered from the Iraqi army.

PKK commanders however say the militants' main weapon is fear: “They are waging psychological warfare,” Goyi said. “Islamic State are not as powerful as they're thought to be”.

The PKK's newfound role may prove most worrying to its historic competitor, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The two have long vied for leadership of the Kurdish community across the borders of Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq.

With Kurdish forces from all four countries fighting the same enemy for the first time, for now at least, PKK guerillas and peshmerga stand side by side at checkpoints on the road to Makhmur. Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and also head of the KDP visited the camp himself to thank PKK commanders for their assistance.

But tensions are not far beneath the surface.

A senior KDP official said the PKK's involvement would discourage the international community from providing the Kurds with advanced weapons to match Islamic State's arsenal. “We don't need them,” he said of the PKK, accusing it of seeking to discredit the KDP.

The wounded guerrilla Rojhat said the PKK was more organized and disciplined than the peshmerga, and its tactics better suited to fighting Islamic State, even without the kind of military hardware Iraqi Kurds are seeking.

“This is how we fought the Turkish army for years,” Rojhat said. “War is an act of faith”.

“NO NEED TO PANIC”

Ankara has made little comment on the latest conflict in Iraq, smarting from allegations, which it firmly denies, that its support for Sunni opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad helped the Islamic State to grow and fearing for the fate of dozens of its citizens the militants have captured.

But Turkish officials played down concern the PKK would be embolded by its role in Iraq into stirring unrest in Turkey, seeing the fight against Islamic State as a separate issue from their struggle with Ankara for Kurdish rights.

“In Iraq there is a crisis and the PKK has engaged in this fight along with other elements there,” a senior Turkish government official told Reuters, adding that he did not see its engagement there as permanent.

“There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic,” the official said, asking for anonymity to allow him to speak more freely.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said this week the government may hold direct talks with the guerrillas, whose leader Ocalan is jailed on an island in the Marmara Sea. It proposes a plan involving the disarmament and reintegration of fighters into Turkish society.

The PKK see the new enemy and the old as very much linked, accusing Turkey of funding and sending Islamists to fight Kurds on their behalf in Syria, allegations Ankara denies.

But it has dropped its demand for a separate state for Kurds in Turkey's southeast in favor of devolution of power in each of the four countries across which Kurds are divided.

A European diplomat in Ankara said that the PKK would see its actions in Iraq, in particular its help in protecting members of the Yazidi community, as helping a diplomatic push to persuade the European Union to remove it from its list of terrorist groups.

“It is quite paradoxical that an organization proscribed as a terrorist group by the EU appears to have played such a significant role (against Islamic State),” the diplomat said.

“They’re challenging the legal basis on which the EU proscribed them in the first place. They will see all of what has been happening in the past few days as grist to that mill.”

The European Union, however, would be highly unlikely to make any such move without Turkish agreement, he said.

“The Turks would be strongly against … We’re not at the stage where Turkey would be willing to contemplate anything like that, absolutely not.”

+