The West’s Inconsistent Approach To Foreign Fighters in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 10 April 2017

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkey-based Kurdish Marxist-nationalist insurgent group, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Britain, the United States, NATO, and Turkey, created a new foreign fighter unit in Syria on 31 March. In Syria, the PKK uses the name People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the new organization, mostly composed of Europeans, is called the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF). In addition to underlining some interesting points about the PKK and Western strategy in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), the IRPGF also underlines the different approach the West has taken to foreign fighters flowing to various groups during the Syrian war.

The video announcing the IRPGF featured a masked Western man, who sounds American, reading a statement amid various explosions and scenes of fighting:

Today, the revolution in Rojava is under attack. Like the Paris Commune and at so many other points in history, the revolutionary forces face the leviathan of capitalist hegemony, which has come to devour the new world and enslave us all once again. This is our Stalingrad. The revolution must be defended. Therefore, we announce the creation of the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces to defend the revolution in Rojava.

The International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces is a militant, armed, self-organized, and horizontal collective, working to defend social revolutions around the world, to directly confront capital and the state, and advance the cause of anarchism.

We are committed anti-fascists, anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, and against all forms of patriarchy and kyriarchy. We announce our membership in the International Freedom Battalion and declare our support and alliance with the YPJ, the YPG, the PKK, the Antifascist International Tabur, and the International Freedom Battalion’s member organizations. We declare our open struggle with all imperialist, fascist and counterrevolutionary forces.

Victory to the revolution in Rojava! Victory to the barricades, the social insurrection, and the commune! Militant, horizontal, self-organized collectives, and communities for the revolution and anarchism

The startling language—at once a throwback to a world where the Soviet Union, the PKK’s main sponsor for a long time, existed, and just very slightly farcical—should not distract from a host of real issues raised by this announcement.

The YPG/PKK—operating through a front-group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—is the primary ground instrument the West has chosen in its war against IS, and it seems that this support encompasses a blind-eye being turned to a flow of Western fighters joining the ranks of the PKK, despite the terrorism designation. Twenty-two Westerners have already been killed fighting for the YPG.

The West’s attitude to its citizens joining the PKK is especially interesting because, as Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria between 2011 and 2014 put it to me, while “there is no indication of any kind of effort to block PYD/PKK recruitment,” this stands in “strong contrast” to the criminal charges brought—in Germany, one of the epicentres of PKK activity in Europe—against people for helping Ahrar al-Sham, “even though [Ahrar is] not on the terror list”.

It could be argued that Ahrar, itself an extremist group and one that drew on seed funding from al-Qaeda donors while maintaining—at least until recentlystrong operational connections with al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, is an actor that the West should not be bolstering, and one that operates in a murky enough ideological and organization milieu that legal deterrents to individual citizens doing so are justified. This only underlines how strange it is that no steps have been taken to stem the flow of recruits to the PKK.

The PKK is, on its own terms, a menace to Western security. The PKK operates a vast fundraising apparatus in Europe, which is deeply integrated with organized crime. It is “difficult, when not impossible, to differentiate” the PKK’s criminal and terrorist activities, says John Schindler, a former counterintelligence officer for the National Security Agency, for the simple reason that “PKK logistics cells supporting terror are criminals”.

To support its insurgency and terrorism against the Turkish state, the PKK has involved itself in the drugs trade in Europe, drawing sanctions from the U.S. Treasury, including against Zubayir Aydar, effectively the political leader of the PKK based in Germany. The PKK’s involvement in the off-the-books arms trade—which involves links with hostile intelligence services like Russia’s—are also well-documented. The PKK’s extensive involvement in human trafficking is less well-known, but is a significant revenue-generator. The money raised from “taxes” on the Kurdish diaspora, not always voluntarily given, is also copious.

The West allowing material support—namely volunteer fighters—to flow to the PKK and strengthen the organization, both physically and politically by these Western fighters contributing to the PKK’s support among Western populations and making it even harder to contain, is therefore a puzzling policy.

The policy is even stranger given the current focus on anti-radicalization or “countering-violent extremism” (CVE). One need not suggest a moral equivalence between the PKK and jihadi-salafist groups like IS and al-Qaeda to note just how similar are the narratives and methods used by the PKK to mobilize recruits.

For instance, it is impossible that so many Americans would have been drawn into jihadism in the early 1990s without the backdrop of the Bosnian war in which, though it was intensely complicated, Muslims were the main victims and the international community was indifferent. Al-Qaeda was able to recruit people, quite a number of whom were essentially of good intent, to go to defend the Bosniaks, and in the process indoctrinated them. This has recurred in Syria.

In a not-dissimilar way, the PKK has drawn on the long record of anti-Kurdish persecution in the region and the very clear and present threat of IS to marshal sympathy in the West. The PKK then frames its struggle for a statelet very skilfully in universalist, liberal terms, generating both recruits and broader legitimacy from the West.

A large proportion of the Western YPG volunteers early in the conflict were essentially apolitical with military backgrounds. Their reasons for joining were complex and varied. Many were motivated simply by the impulse to protect people, which could only be done by defeating IS. In some cases, this humanistic driver led to tension once these veterans realized the PKK’s political program. Some were motivated by more personal reasons: they were soldiers who had been expelled from their state’s military but were unable to settle into civilian life. Others were chancers.

In addition to those motivated by a sense—even if only for an in-group—of humanitarian obligation, violent non-state actors also draw on those with violent and/or criminal impulses. The YPG has now refined its recruiting methods and is focused on far-Left radicals, but in the beginning a significant number of recruits were “psychopaths that wanted to come [and] kill people,” according to an American YPG member.

Rather than a societal determination to counter this, there will be a film romanticising the PKK recruits and ratifying the PKK’s narrative, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The surrealism of a recruit like Brace Belden, known to Twitter as “PissPigGranddad,” an American former florist and drug addict who took up communism and anti-Westernism with an ironic slant, has made it even more difficult to seriously address the problems with the PKK. The PYD/PKK has ruthlessly suppressed the Kurdish opposition, for example, but when Belden surveys this authoritarian conduct and refers to it as a “Stalinist state,” he can later claim to be joking, and more or less gets taken at his word. When Belden tells Rolling Stone magazine, “Technically, I did a war crime, because I peed on a dead person,” it is received as a point of minor titillation. U.S. soldiers who urinated on the corpses of Taliban jihadists in 2012 were punished. As Belden heads back to the U.S., it seems unlikely he will suffer any consequences.

The lack of legal interest in the PKK can also be seen in its freedom to recruit online. IS’s use of social media to recruit provoked a crackdown that was so effective IS even threatened Facebook’s owners. Contrariwise, Facebook pages celebrating the “Lions of Rojava,” and providing Westerners with the ability to reach out and arrange travel to join the PKK have never been closed down and YPG volunteers like Macer Gifford, a British former Tory councilor, are free to agitate on the YPG’s behalf politically and to facilitate the recruitment of Westerners.

To be sure, this isn’t solely a problem related to the Leftist militancy of the PKK and its cutouts: the U.S. has done nothing to halt or reverse the movement of tens of thousands of Iranian-controlled jihadists into Syria since 2012-13 to rescue Bashar al-Assad, and social media propaganda-recruitment efforts by Iran and its Shia jihadist proxies do not get the attention from authorities that they deserve, either.

This inequality, with the West ignoring the Khomeini’ist and PKK foreign fighter flows, and actually enabling both forces as part of the anti-IS war, feeds into the Sunni jihadists’ narrative of a global conspiracy against Sunnis that only the jihadi-salafists can protect Sunnis from.

The reason why Western governments spend so little energy disrupting the PKK foreign fighter flow relates to the lack of a large-scale internal terrorism threat, unlike al-Qaeda and IS. “I doubt PKK/PYD recruitment is a direct threat to the West,” says Ford, except for PKK attacks on Turkish targets in Western countries, like diplomats and businesses. The PKK’s worst behaviour is directed externally, at Turkey, and it is only when Western countries like Germany crack down that the PKK can—and does—create internal turmoil. Many Western states understandably choose, especially in the current circumstances, not to kick that hornet’s nest and to prioritize other things. There are reasons to wonder if this is a viable long-term policy.

The Turks have claimed that PKK suicide bombers have been trained and assisted from YPG-held areas in Syria. The evidence for such claims so far is very thin indeed, but the logic of events remains.

It seems likely that the U.S.-led Coalition will support the YPG/PKK as the force to clear IS out of Raqqa City and after that the transnational nature of the YPG/PKK will make itself felt. This has been expressed by YPG/PKK operatives many times, and the message is always the same: once their war in Syria is done, or even before then if Ankara attempts a pre-emptive strike, the YPG will turn its attention to Turkey.

Ambassador Ford says that “it would not be reasonable to assume that all 100% [of the YPG foreign fighters] will go home after Syria and leave the fight against Turkey to brothers-in-arms Kurds,” which raises the possibility that in the near future a NATO state will be attacked by a group containing citizens from other NATO states that have been enabled by NATO governments.

The problems and risks associated with the Syrian rebellion, from capacity to the need to untangle the extremists that took advantage of Western neglect to offer themselves as a partner to a desperate population, are well-understood. Those problems and risks will not reduce in the absence of Western engagement. But the risks of working with political extremists like the PKK, and doing so in an unbalanced way, are very real, too.

Overlooking the PKK’s construction of an autocracy, which is not stable over the long term, the YPG/PKK is simply incapable of conquering all IS-held areas and keeping IS down. The PKK is not large enough to hold the provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in any case, and has shown itself to have an expansive view of “collaborators”; the violations that accumulate from that as the PKK captures Arab-majority areas will polarize Arab-Kurdish relations, providing political space for IS’s revival, as well as for infiltration into liberated areas by al-Qaeda.

There are other options. President Donald Trump striking at the Assad regime to punish it for using chemical weapons of mass destruction shows that it is possible to alter course in Syria. A broader reset could be initiated that does not focus so blindly on IS, a symptom of this war, that it creates a crisis within NATO and enables Iranian hegemony in the Fertile Crescent. Part of this would involve confining the PKK to the Kurdish areas, where it can continue its “socialist experiment” without threatening other communities or Syria’s neighbours, and working with U.S. allies like Turkey to mobilize local forces to sustainably defeat IS in eastern Syria.


Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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