Scores of military minded westerners have flocked to the Kurdish-dominated enclave of Syria in recent years, armed and ready to defeat the jihadist threat that is the Islamic State (ISIS). But while many are there to blast and burn the enemy, many too have descended for reasons more akin to those of “Burning Man” participants – to take part in a socialism-rooted, communal and ideological revolution.
“Most of the (foreign volunteers) joined for social justice reasons,” prominent war photographer Jake Simkin told Fox News. “There are Brooklyn hipsters who love the idea of communism and are into working on the law side and governance of Rojava.”
Indeed, a desire to be part of history and the grassroots “Rojava Revolution” – the de facto autonomous Syrian-Kurdish region’s push to completely sever ties with the Syrian government and create a self-rule, not just win a war – is the draw for such anarchists, activists and peaceniks.
The most common way to play a role is by joining the “People’s Protection Units” – better known by their Kurdish acronyms YPG and YPJ – who are backed by the U.S-led coalition in the operation to take back the ISIS “caliphate capital” of Raqqa and deemed one of the most effective fighting forces on the ground.
“The Rojava Revolution is about recreating a society that promotes women’s empowerment and enables people of all races and sexes the chance to live free from injustice that would normally take place in the Middle East,” explained YPG soldier Rojhat Rojava. “Just liberating with war doesn’t bring freedom, we will give education to the people, which gives power to the people to organize their society and never be forced under dictatorships or regimes or ISIS again.”
And with that, comes a cast of characters from over the seas.
The westerners, we’re told, predominantly hail from the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Germany, France and the Czech Republic and are generally smuggled from the Iraqi-Kurdistan city of Sulaymaniyah into the Syrian-Kurdish side. For those officially joining the YPG ranks, one month of training is typically required – learning military tactics, physical training, language class and YPG ideology class. For many outlanders, it is that last component that is the allure.
Patrick Ryan Kasprik – a 25-year-old native of Fort Myers, Florida – took a break from Florida Southwestern University and spent a year volunteering with the YPG, returning in January. He describes himself as “a bit of a socialist,” and was initially drawn to the war zone not only by the “need to do something against Da’esh,” – the Middle East acronym for ISIS – but also because he “appreciated the Kurds’ views on women’s liberation and some of their more nuanced political views.”
However, he soon realized that he could be of most service training as a combat medic
“I didn’t interact with many of the political folks. I found them to be do-nothings, whereas I was interested in helping the wounded,” Kasprik told Fox News.
Mixed in among the ranks of foreign fighters, he recalled, were western “communists trying to build ‘silicone valleys’ or Rojava, or start fertilizer projects that fail months later.”
“I never saw one person in the political and civil group of Rojava just taking on realistic projects that will actually benefit the people, like consistent sources of electricity or building roads,” Kasprik continued. “Idealists have no place in a war zone. They were more of a resource drain than anything else.”
And Robert Amos, a politics and sociology graduate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was motivated to join the YPG cause after seeing painstaking images of the genocide and rape committed by ISIS against the Yazidi community in neighboring Iraq.
But soon after traveling to Syria at the beginning of 2015, the then 28-year-old was faced with “preachy hipsters from the U.S. and Europe” who were motivated “by socialist or anarchist ideology.” Amos said that although they weren’t the majority, they made their presence known – although they tended to head home early or try not find non-combat positions.
“Generally, they were young males who maybe had gone to college, what you would describe as a hipster. Idealistic and young,” Amos told Fox News. “But they got disillusioned a lot of the time. This was a war."
Some western volunteers espoused utopian ideology while one of them was a known U.K hacktivist who brought Guy Fawkes masks – the symbol of hacktivist group Anonymous – and aspired to turn the YPG into an Anonymous army. One American showed up with tattoos in homage to Che Guevara – the infamous Argentine Marxist revolutionary.
Fox News was also told by fighters on the ground that some came straight from taking part in such stateside movements as “Black Lives Matter,” while others were purely into championing “peace” and humanitarian issues without the politics.
Although supported by the U.S-led coalition, the YPG is closely connected to the controversial Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkey-based militia is designated by the State Department and the European Union as a foreign terrorist organization given their 40-year-old, independence-driven conflict with the NATO member.
The philosophies – from decentralization and statelessness to commune and egalitarianism – of the PKK’S founder Abdullah Ocalan, who languishes in a Turkish prison, are devoutly hailed by the Rojava Revolutionists.
According to Zach Medeiros, co-chair of Socialist Party USA International Relations, the endeavors of the revolutionists – both native and newcomer – are for the most part, to be admired.
“Hundreds of foreign, non-Kurdish volunteers have joined the YPG/YPJ in their fight, and a number of them have paid with their lives, while others have been unjustly prosecuted for their actions upon returning to their home countries,” Medeiros told Fox News. “I think there is a certain element of naivety in this phenomenon, especially among those who don’t seriously consider what they’re getting into. On the other hand, it’s also an inspiring display of internationalism. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to put your life on the line for another people’s struggle.”
Simkin, the prominent war photographer, also pointed out that even though many of the ideologist types did more harm than good, the western volunteer was still a welcome sight for the international leverage that it brings.
“The YPG does want foreign ambassadors,” he added. “It helps fight their cause.”