Do Westerners fighting with Syria’s Kurds pose a threat back home? (Part 2)

YPG press office | International volunteers with the Kurdish YPG in Afrin, northern Syria.

Hundreds of foreign nationals are fighting in Afrin to defend the Kurdish "revolution" in northern Syria. Considered mercenaries, they could pose a threat upon returning to their home countries.


Since Turkey launched a military offensive in the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northern Syria on January 20, between 100 and 400 Westerners are believed to have joined the ranks of the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG).

Their motivations include helping the Kurds, fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, and in some cases, supporting the leftist, feminist, ecological and anti-capitalist YPG ideology being put into practice in Rojava the Kurdish term for the northern Syrian territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military coalition dominated by the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

>> Read Part 1: Far left on the front lines: The Westerners joining the Kurds' fight in Syria

Whatever their motives, these Western fighters are considered mercenaries and they could be a source of worry when they return to their home countries.

A number of European YPG volunteers who have returned home from the Syrian battlefields are currently facing trials. On February 14, former British soldier James Matthews appeared before a London court, where he was charged with “attending a place or places in Iraq and Syria where instruction or training was provided for purposes connected to the commission or preparation of terrorism".

Before a packed court of cheering Kurdish supporters, Matthews entered a not guilty plea.

Two days later, another Briton, Aidan James, was charged with one count of preparation of acts of terrorism and two of attendance at a place used for terrorist training.

While a number of French nationals are fighting with the YPG, no legal proceedings have been launched against them so far. But some of them say they are on “fiche S", France’s list of individuals considered a national security threat. The list is not publicly disclosed in France.

Shortly before he was killed in Afrin on February 10, Olivier Le Clainche, a Frenchman who used the nom de guerre "Kendal Breizh", told a French TV station he planned to return home for the summer. In an interview from Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, the 40-year-old Frenchman said he was not worried about a possible conviction. "There aren’t too many consequences for people who have already had the opportunity to return [to France] for a very simple reason: it would be a bit hypocritical for France to pursue people who fight with the YPG while a few kilometres from here, French special forces are doing the same thing."

French as well as US and British special forces are present east of the Euphrates River in Syria, in territory held by the SDF.

While the YPG is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the Kurdish group is not on the US or EU terrorist group list. Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is proscribed as a terror group by Turkey, the US, the EU and the UN. The US and the EU, however, maintain there’s no evidence of the YPG operating in Turkey and consider the Kurdish group a key ally in the Washington-led international coalition against the IS group.

Developing Kurdish identities and appropriating enemies

But in an article, “The Threat from Western Volunteers in Kurdish Groups", which was published last year in the Small Wars Journal, Guillaume Corneau-Tremblay warned that YPG foreign fighters “undoubtedly have the capacity to deploy a fairly high level of violence”.

A prolonged stay with YPG units in Syria, Corneau-Tremblay noted, could lead to some volunteers developing “a Kurdish identity" that could lead them to perceive Turkey – and by extension, NATO – as the enemy.

Corneau-Tremblay also warns of the risk of YPG foreign fighters, who already considered themselves anti-establishment, taking up “violence against traditional symbolic targets (finance, military, politics, etc.).”

But Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in far-right extremism in Europe at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), considers the threat anachronistic. "Action Direct (an anarcho-communist group that committed multiple terrorist attacks in France from 1979 to 1987) has been dead in France for years," said Camus. But, he added, “this does not mean that there are no disturbing trends in the ultra-left".

For his part, Olivier Grojean, a Sorbonne University lecturer and Kurdish specialist, noted that the PKK "has never committed an attack on European soil. The Kurds are not at war with the West and there is no reason for foreign fighters to turn against their country of origin.”

However, a Greek newspaper last year published photos of Greek anarchists from the Revolutionary Union for Internationalist Solidarity (RUIS), a group founded in 2015, in northern Syria.

The photograph showed men in combat fatigues and balaclavas brandishing rifles near a wall sprayed with a message in Greek that said, “From Rojava to Athens, the liberated lands of the struggle. You will spill blood to take them,” according to the Daily Hellas website.

A process ‘similar to Islamic radicalisation’

Given these fears, a French source working on the issue believes these foreign fighters should be monitored since the combination of the ultra-left political project of Rojava and the military training they receive could pose a threat.

"Rojava is an experiment of a new mode of society. The international fighters are in a bubble. This experience reinforces the legitimisation of violence and questioning of the social order … It’s a process that’s very similar to Islamic radicalisation, which means, follow-up is necessary,” said the source who did not wish to be named.

The process of joining YPG ranks is not very different from signing up to jihadist networks, she explained. The similarities begin with the motivations. Many Westerners who left for northern Syria were responding to the excesses committed by the jihadists against the Kurds, Yazidis, Christians or other minorities in the region, and by the "abandonment of the international community", she explained. It was the same driving factor for some foreign jihadists, including Westerners, who went to Syria to help their fellow Muslims suffering a brutal crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Like most foreign jihadists, pro-Kurdish volunteers leave clandestinely to join the international YPG brigades. Their flight tickets are sometimes paid for by the international YPG brigades. On the ground, these volunteers are not paid, but they receive intense physical and military, as well as ideological training. The most experienced are then invited to take up arms and those who lose their lives for the cause are deemed "martyrs", a badge of honour in the Kurdish resistance.

It was an honour recently bestowed on Le Clainche, who died on February 10 in Afrin along with two Spanish nationals. "These comrades, who are part of this magnificent resistance that our struggle has embarked on behalf of human dignity in the Middle East, have become symbols of the internationalist revolutionary spirit and struggle for democracy in the Middle East," said a statement released by the YPG.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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