Far left on the front lines: The Westerners joining the Kurds' fight in Syria (Part 1 of 2)
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Fighters from France, Britain, Greece and beyond have joined Kurds in their battle against Turkish troops in Syria’s Afrin. Often identifying with the far left, these volunteers have set off to fight, and even die, for a "Kurdish revolution".
His nom de guerre was Kendal Breizh. Olivier Le Clainche, a 40-year-old Frenchman from Brittany, was killed during bombardments in Syria on February 10 after fighting for months alongside Kurdish forces. The news of his death, which has not been confirmed by French authorities, came in a statement this week from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the Kurds' Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. Two other European fighters, Spaniard Samuel Prada Leon and Dutchman Sjoerd Heeger, were reportedly also killed.
Between 100 and 400 Westerners have joined the YPG’s ranks in Syria, analysts tell FRANCE 24, including a handful of French nationals as well as Americans, Britons, Greeks, Germans and Italians. Having initially set off to battle the Islamic State Group, the YPG’s battalion of foreign volunteers announced in a statement on January 26 that it had now mobilised to “defend Afrin”. The Kurdish enclave in northern Syria has been under fire from the Turkish army since January 20.
The phenomenon is not recent. Foreigners began joining Kurdish troops as early as 2013, and their ranks have since swelled to between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters, each rarely staying longer than six months. Some have gone home and returned to fight again, others came “just for a photo” before departing quickly. Still others haven’t escaped with their lives.
The catalyst for many came in 2014 with the battle of Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish enclave besieged for months by the IS group. “Given Daesh’s conduct with [civilian] populations, you could say we’re doing humanitarian work,” Breizh told France Info in a January interview from Syria’s Deir Ezzor region, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group. “It is just that our tools aren’t quite the same,” he added.
The foreign volunteers may be a motley crew, but they can nevertheless be broken down into three main groups: ex-military, a majority of whom are English-speaking and sometimes have a far-right political agenda; far-left activists, including Communists, Marxists, Libertarians and Antifa (anti-fascist) – principally Greeks, Germans and Italians; and miscellaneous adventurers with backgrounds neither military nor activist but with sundry and surprising profiles that include a Hollywood actor, a British banker and a Canadian fashion model.
The Turkish offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, changed the nature of the fight: Alongside the Kurds, these foreign volunteers are no longer fighting the IS group but the sovereign state of Turkey. The composition of their ranks has become more homogenised and now largely consists of the far-left “revolutionaries” who stayed on.
“The humanists, former soldiers and adrenaline-seeking adventurers became scarcer, giving way to the ideologues,” said Guillaume Corneau-Tremblay, a political scientist working for the Canadian government.
Serhad Tiqqun, a 21-year-old Frenchman in Afrin, is one of them. In the anti-establishment weekly “Lundi Matin”, he estimated that there are "several dozen internationals … and it is not surprising that virtually all of us are [revolutionary] politicos". He said that, according to his YPG “comrades”, the Afrin front is “the most difficult ever seen in the Rojava” but also "the most political".
The Rojava is the Kurdish name for the vast stretch of territory in northern Syria that is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military coalition dominated by the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Since 2014, these groups have been trying to set up an independent and self-administered political system in the region. Inspired by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), they reject nationalism and espouse an egalitarian society that respects minority rights and cares about environmental issues.
“Here we make war, sure – but we are, above all, taking part in a revolution. An imperfect, incomplete revolution that is open to criticism, but one that is nevertheless one of the greatest chances our camp has ever had to triumph,” Tiqqun told “Lundi Matin”. The young man describes himself as a “blanquiste”, an ideology inspired by the 19th-century French Socialist thinker Auguste Blanqui, who believed that revolution could only succeed with a small, structured group of revolutionaries.
The Rojava revolution's principles have earned the SDF the support of French far-left movements. France’s anti-globalist and environmentalist zadistes, for example, issued a statement in solidarity with Rojava in the name of revolutionary “internationalism”.
In response, photos of Rojava fighters supporting the zadistes made their way around social media networks. Breizh, for his part, posted photos with his face obscured, brandishing an “Antifascist Brittany” flag.
The Breton had also travelled to Syria as a “revolutionary”. The ex-journalist and proponent of independence for Brittany told his former colleagues at France Bleu Breizh Izel radio last July that he had taken up arms “less to fight Daesh than for the Rojava revolution that the Kurds have organised”.
Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on extremism in Europe and an associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, says there is a natural affinity between these groups' ideals.
“There is an evident ideological continuity. In northern Syria, the Kurds have set up an experimental state that is secular, feminist, practicing equal representation, very left-wing [and] based on the principle of self-administration. It is an inspiring model for anarchists and a far-left revolutionary fringe," he said, adding: "They also share a virulent anti-Islamism.”
As a historical reference, Syria's foreign revolutionaries point to the Spanish Civil War’s International Brigades, who fought Francoist troops alongside Republicans in 1936.
“The far left does not take borders into account and has internationalism at its heart,” Camus said, noting that in the 1960s and 1970s “there were already far-left elements setting off to fight in the theatres of decolonisation – like others who later joined the ranks of South America’s guerrillas and then the Palestinian movements”.
In fact, the PKK and its affiliates have been welcoming foreign fighters for more than 25 years. “Opening up to foreigners is part of the PKK’s objectives and its way of functioning," said Olivier Grojean, a senior lecturer at the Sorbonne. "The battle of Kobane only accelerated the process."
Beyond the help they provide on the battlefield, Grojean said these foreign fighters also serve as part of an international PR campaign. “Upon their return, these volunteers often do peaceful activism. They mobilise for, and spread awareness of, the Kurdish cause."
But the return home can also be problematic. Several volunteer fighters are currently facing trial on terrorism charges back in Europe. Some analysts have warned that others, newly hardened by battle abroad, might be lured into new militant ideologies.
This article has been translated from the original in French.