Foreign Fighters: From Kurdistan to the Caliphate

Much is made of the foreign fighters who flock to join the ‘caliphate’ Islamic State (IS) claims to have established in Iraq and Syria.

Although many foreign fighters are from Middle Eastern and North African countries, the international focus is on those from prosperous Western nations. These people are many things: a clear and present threat to national security, something of a rebuke to the societies from which they came, and also an important puzzle.

The exact process by which such people decide to leave their lives and assume new ones is not clear. Most are religious zealots, sometimes converts, drawn by the theocratic dream IS articulates; others are losers or adventurers, frustrated with their lives in the West and unable to fit in; and in all categories the psychologically damaged and the criminal feature heavily, drawn by a desire – or perhaps even a need – to live in a warzone where violent fantasies can be played out.

But IS is not the only faction in Iraq and Syria which attracts foreign fighters, from the West or elsewhere. Indeed, it is not even the only terrorist organisation to do so.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an internationally-designated terrorist group – and affiliated parties, receive a steady stream of willing recruits from the West. These people are eager either to fight IS or to advance more diffuse objectives of the PKK, including its violent struggle against the government of Turkey, and the propagation of its Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

Most Westerners who went out to fight with various Kurdish groups had no intention of assisting the PKK, not least because they don’t know what it is. Instead, many have joined the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is not an affiliate or ally of the PKK but a fully integrated branch of the organisation, sharing ideology, personnel, and a command structure.

There are now, however, real zealots joining the PKK. For them, the fight against IS is almost incidental. It provides a focal point to guarantee the world’s attention and temporary support, but the real fight is building a political and cultural utopia.

These foreign fighters are just as ideologically driven as the Westerners flocking to join IS. They are similar in this respect to the Shia jihadists whose presence in both Iraq and Syria is also underreported. To use the word on the lips of every policymaker and analyst, many of the Westerners who go to fight with Kurdish groups have also been ‘radicalised’.

And though their cause seems less offensive, in the immediate term, than that of IS’ foreign recruits, such people remain a threat. The very fact that PKK terrorism is a persistent destabilising influence in Turkey ought to be sufficient evidence against supporting that organisation, and for putting those who do so, either ideologically or materially, under some suspicion.

The fetishisation of Westerners going out to fight for the PKK and its affiliates is therefore both a little perverse and actively unhelpful. But those who do are still held in high regard, and are, for example, compared to the International Brigades who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War; many explicitly liken these foreign fighters to George Orwell, who fought in Spain with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).

This idealised view masks the fact that foreign fighters, though they are sometimes killed by IS, actually appear to do very little fighting, and are prized instead as propaganda props.

On social media, groups such as the ‘Lions of Rojava’, are used to recruit for the YPG. They promote a romantic vision of volunteering to fight against IS, complete with inspirational quotations and glamorised photographs.

Needless to say, such things are not to be taken at face value. Nor are they pursued under social media platforms’ rules against promoting terrorism.

Like those who join IS, by now many of the foreign fighters who flock to the PKK or YPG banner are ideologues – in this case normally far-leftists of some description, which allows ostensibly anti-war writers of the political left to endorse the Kurdish cause as, in Orwell’s words, ‘a state of affairs worth fighting for.

Other foreign fighters comprise the familiar collection of desperados and misfits who are attracted to conflict and combat.

The idea of a Kurdish state, something pursued by many Kurdish groups, can force its adherents to court unsavoury allies and to make unwelcome deals. But it does not have to. Despite the historic persecution of the Kurds within Syria by the Assad family, the YPG and PKK have made clear they would be willing for Bashar al-Assad to remain, so long as he gives them what they want, which amounts to little more than increased autonomy.

This rather dishonourable position is hardly a surprise; the PKK is a long-time ally of the Damascus regime. There are Kurdish groups, however, who oppose the Assad regime and the anti-Assad extremists, notably the groups gathered under the banner of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is suppressed in YPG-held areas. In August, the KNC leader was expelled from ‘Rojava’, and threatened with murder if he returned.

Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, said to me that, ‘in a purely strategic sense – the tactics of course varying massively – the YPG/PKK has the same project as IS: a transnational statelet covering their demographic group’.

This adherence to a transnational worldview wins out over concerns about supporting a genocidal dictator. Some who fight with the Kurds know this; maybe others – the communist utopians, perhaps – would be less than pleased to learn of such a lack of solidarity. Or possibly not. Theirs is, after all, something of an ideological project, and those who disagree or see things differently are not only dissenters but traitors.

Hangers-on of the YPG and PKK have accused Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently – an organisation of citizen journalists and critics of IS, whose own members have been relentlessly hunted by the caliphate and brutally murdered by its operatives – of being ISIS supporters. A worldview capable of warping perceptions to that degree must be highly paranoid and irrational.

Many Western men, thirsting for glory in a foreign field, have now become assets, unwilling or not, of terrorists, of people who care less about removing a war criminal than securing sectarian advantages. And the worst part is that no one in the wider world seems to notice, or to mind.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.