Testimony of an American Fighter with the Syrian Kurds

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 18, 2017

American YPG volunteer, “Brennan”

In November 2016, an American, named only as “Brennan,” who had fought alongside the Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), spoke to “Kraut and Tea,” a German atheist YouTuber. Brennan provided some interesting details on the governance methods, ideology, and capabilities of the YPG.

Brennan is a U.S. military veteran, having fought in Iraq in 2005 against the predecessor of the Islamic State (IS) in the area between Baghdad and Fallujah. This was the period after the IS movement’s first attempt at governance in Fallujah had been collapsed, and their cadres had spread out across Iraq to Mosul and the “Triangle of Death”. Brennan was motivated to return to Iraq by the scenes of genocidal violence against the Yazidis by IS in Sinjar in late 2014. When the Yazidis were besieged and starving on the top of Mount Sinjar, it was the YPG who led the operation to break the siege.

The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is headquartered in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Brennan was recruited through Facebook by Macer Gifford, a British PYD/YPG operative who fought alongside the group and now works to promote their cause in Europe and the United States.

Brennan went to Iraqi Kurdistan in order to cross into “Rojava,” the PYD-ruled areas of Syria. This travel route has been highlighted by other YPG foreign fighters. Unfortunately for Brennan, he landed in Erbil, ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masud Barzani, who is hostile to the PKK and friendly with Turkey and the West. Brennan was stripped of thousands of dollars of equipment, including body armour. Brennan then moved east to Sulaymaniya, the domain of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is more favourably disposed to the PKK and Iran. From there, Brennan was smuggled into the mountains and—via Turkey—into Syria.

Upon arrival, Brennan went through a month-long training course he said is called, “The Academy,” which comprises an attempt to indoctrinate recruits with the PKK’s ideology, Kurdish language lessons, and some familiarization with the weapons platforms that the YPG has. For people of a military background, the YPG’s training was “a joke,” said Brennan, and many of the foreigners he saw in the YPG’s ranks really shouldn’t have been there—for their own safety and everyone else’s.

Brennan’s initial plan was to make a documentary to raise awareness about the YPG’s cause, but it then morphed into the creation of a combat medic unit and the attempt to administer training in battlefield treatment when it was found that the YPG’s capabilities in this area were essentially non-existent, leading to many needless deaths. Brennan recruited other Westerners and they formed a platoon, basing themselves in a refurbished cowshed.

The YPG authorities were not especially helpful toward this act of entrepreneurship, according to Brennan. There were three rifles among eight people in a situation where simple survival requires that everyone be able to defend themselves with lethal force. The rebuilding of the base/shed was all done on the foreigners’ dime. “They [the YPG higher-ups] were content with us not having an ambulance,” said Brennan. “We were fighting them [for proper resources] every step of the way.”

Brennan described the way the YPG system worked this way:

Bureaucracy was an absolute nightmare, which can be expected with a centrally-planned economy. It was definitely top-down. And even if you did go through all the bureaucratic nightmare and get the notes—because they operated on an antiquated notes system, handwritten notes; you had to get a handwritten note to go somewhere, you know to another city, to go through checkpoints, or to get weapons and ammo. And we got all of the notes, miraculaously almost, jumped through all the hoops, but even then you had commanders who paid lip-service to, “We’ll get you what you need,” but they didn’t mind lying to your face either.

The YPG’s “ideology is Marxism,” Brennan explained. “There’s definitely a heavy Soviet influence in everything that they do.” Many of the YPG operatives are atheists, according to Brennan, and he and some of the other guests note that this adds to the strangeness of their use of suicide bombing as a tactic in their insurgency against the Turkish state.

Brennan himself is a Christian and therefore does not agree with the YPG’s ideology. But for Brennan this is of minor importance and he remains an admirer of the organization, saying its troops are “some of the most worthy warriors at least in the Middle East that I’ve ever fought beside, all ideological differences aside. They’re wonderful people.” Brennan also repeats data points often disseminated by YPG/PKK spokesman about the Turkish government, saying that “Turkey openly supported” Islamist terrorists in Syria.

Brennan returns to the Soviet analogy when expanding on how the YPG is structured in reality, as against its professed ideology:

It is a top-down system. Just think [of the] Soviet Union because that’s exactly how it operates. The individual gives way to the state. It is very much a martyr culture with them. … One of Apo’s recent books was Democratic Confederalism. This is what he wants to institute. … It’s a utopian ideal: borderless, government-less governed country. Anybody can see that it won’t work, that it doesn’t work. And as we see throughout history, every Marxist, Communist, or Communist-like society that’s every existed … every socialist ideal gives way to an authoritarian state. I don’t think they’re naïve of that. I think they’re very aware of it.

While Apo—Abdullah Ocalan—preaches in favour of a society in which the state withers away, actually existing Apoism “is a hierarchical system. It’s very extensive. It’s very bureaucratic, and very hard to navigate,” Brenna reports. “Part of it is for security reasons … though even at that it’s not very effective. … It’s not really that [related to security] though. It’s just they have their way of doing things and they’re not going to deviate from that.” Brennan says that the YPG uses World War One tactics, and all attempts to impart more modern tactics or different strategic thinking fail.

One of the most tragic aspects of the YPG not having the intellectual or physical property to provide proper medical care to its troops is that the YPG uses child soldiers, Brennan relays:

[It is] pretty indiscriminate, asymmetric warfare out there [in Syria]. There are many children casualties. I remember treating a—I think he was 13-year-old. He was on the frontline fighting. He was in the YPG. And he didn’t have to die. That was the first time it really hit me about the impact the unit was making over there. … He was almost dead when he arrived but he did die on the table when we were giving him CPR. But he had been shot in the chest … But he didn’t have to die. If he would have been treated, the way that we were training them to [treat the wounded], he would be alive today, or at least wouldn’t have died then. …

It’s really hard to process how bad it [the YPG’s medical knowhow] is until you’re there when the ambulance shows up, because at that time I was working at the hospital. … When he came off the back of the ambulance on a stretcher, they had not identified the entry wound, they had not identified the exit wound, they had not attempted to administer him any type of aid outside of giving him an IV [intravenous drip]. … That was not an isolated incident. That was the norm, actually.

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