When ISIS overran swaths of Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava in 2014, scores of Westerners and some self-proclaimed freedom fighters flocked to the region to volunteer with the local Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), even at the risk of being prosecuted in their homeland.
And although ISIS is almost territorially defeated – reduced to a couple of villages near Syria’s borders with Iraq – the region remains a hub for Americans and other Westerners, even those without any formal military training, who are eager to volunteer their services.
One American in the militia is Hunter Pugh, 25, who hails from the small Pennsylvania town of Bloomsburg. He had been working at what he describes as a “toxic” job in the restaurant industry, and was concerned about the growing sexism and “poisonous rhetoric” of the Trump era. So, he packed his bags and headed for Syria in May 2018.
Despite having no prior military or weapons experience, Pugh told Fox News in an exclusive interview that he became a YPG “infantryman” -- enduring several weeks of combat training along with “ideological” training to attain a deeper understanding of the group’s beliefs, which stem from their jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.
While some contend the YPG is rooted in Marxism, Pugh said that it has now evolved into “more anarchism and communalism” and that they are fighting for “democratic values” and equality – and that the road ahead for peace is a winding one.
“ISIS has changed tactics. There are more sleeper cells, and more suicide attacks and car bombs,” he said.
Pugh said that in recent weeks the YPG – which has been backed by the United States as the ground force under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the mission to defeat ISIS since 2015 – has had to form closer ties to the Assad-led Syrian regime for its own protection in the weeks following President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw all 2,200 troops on the ground.
“Initially in the struggle here in Syria, the YPG and the regime had armed conflicts. Now they have had to work together more against common enemies like the Free Syrian Army,” Pugh said, referring to the Turkish-supported umbrella of fighters who have led the way in fighting the Assad government in the long-running civil war. “And it is becoming more apparent that the regime is formally willing to give them the autonomous region that they want.”
Trump shocked both Kurds and much of the international community when he suddenly declared in December that he would be withdrawing all 2,200 U.S. troops in Syria – allowing NATO-ally Turkey to take control of the final ISIS cleanup and security situation. The U.S. has stood firmly against the Iran, Hezbollah and Russia-backed Syrian regime since the beginning of the country’s uprising in 2011.
While the pullout appears to have been halted amid the international outcry over concern for the Kurdish allies, along with the worry that ISIS terrain was not yet cleared and that it would enable adversaries such as Russia to assert greater control, Trump has doubled down that the pullout will happen in coming months.
However, Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK) – a Kurdish separatist group it has long regarded as a terrorist outfit – prompting some analysts to espouse the potential for fighting between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Kurds, but for “Kurdish Genocide.”
For its part, Turkey welcomed Trump’s withdrawal announcement and has sought to remind the world that Turkey, as a NATO ally, can protect America’s regional interests. Ankara has also highlighted that it has bared the brunt of much of the humanitarian crisis engulfing Syria, having taken in 4 million as refugees since the neighboring nation’s brutal civil war ignited almost eight years ago.
Pugh declined to comment on other Americans who also had gone over to Syria to join the fighting fray, but noted that there are a “number of YPJ internationalists who are still here and continue to fight.”
“Every country is represented. They come here to put their faith into action for this movement,” he asserted.
Pugh, who says that he views Kurdistan as his “new home,” underscored that not all Westerners come to bear arms and that many find other roles within the Kurdish community.
Thomas McClure, a 24-year-old native of the United Kingdom, is involved in research and getting the newly-minted “Rojava Information Center” off the ground. He is one of just several hundred foreign volunteers in the region, having gone there some eight months ago.
“For a long time I was inspired by what was going on here, I wanted to support what was going on here and bring stories to a wider audience. A lot of people from the West come to volunteer to fight, but I thought this was a better fit for me,” he said. “ISIS prisoners here are constantly being interviewed, I wanted people to hear more civilian voices. Everyone has these amazing stories and they toss them away like they are nothing.”
McClure noted that since Trump’s stunning December tweet, which subsequently brought about the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy to the region Brett McGurk, the Kurds have been taking it all in stride and valiantly preparing for the next phase.
“People felt angry, they felt betrayed, but they aren’t going to beg for help. All they can do is prepare themselves,” McClure explained. “I have never met a Kurdish person who likes the idea of making an alliance with the (Assad) regime, especially given the way the regime treated them before the start of the revolution, but the way Turkey treats them is worse on the scale.”
And his information center may very well be busier than ever.
“Turkey has made their intentions very clear. Everyone is making themselves ready for another war,” he said, adding that thousands of men and women, ages 18 and over, have been undertaking voluntary self-defense classes in the region. “It’s just a question of when.”