Over a year ago, Insurgentsia broke that a Kurdish militia called the Lions of Rojava (LoR) within the left-leaning People’s Protection Unit (YPG) was actively recruiting Americans to join the fight against the Islamic State (IS) much like the Marxist militias that attracted George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War. Since then, that particular post has been Insurgentsia‘s most Googled piece, numerous articles have been written about the Lions of Rojava in the press, (the Washington Post and The Guardian picked it about a month later) and the Lions of Rojava have become almost famous in certain circles.
Among private security contractors in Afghanistan that I have spoken with, the Lions of Rojava are talked about with a certain reverence and some jealousy, as it is understood that these are the guys who are engaging in offensive operations against IS, unlike most legitimate security contractors who are involved in strictly defensive operations. Of course, the LoR are volunteers and as such are not paid more than a nominal allowance — a deterrent for most people who make their living as an armed security professional.
Indeed, the comments section of my 2014 piece is filled with would-be volunteers asking for information on how to join or offering their services. The most poignant example of LoR’s popularity is simply how many Westerners have joined (and how many have been killed or wounded in action) since then.
The most famous of the Lions of Rojava, and the person who first advertised that LoR had begun an effort to recruit more Americans, is Jordan Matson, the unofficial American spokesman for the YPG. Initially I was a bit skeptical of Matson who was in the United States Army for a year and a half and had a penchant for having silly photos taken of himself. But after over a year since my first post, he seems to have stuck out his commitment — even after others who came after him left or were killed, after his injury, and after he was sent back to combat. Today he is married to a Kurdish woman and plans to start a family in the US.
However, many were not as lucky as Matson. Today the Kurds enjoy contiguous territory from Kobane in the east to the Iraqi border in the west, but this was not always the case. Many remember the fierce fighting for Kobane which received a lot of news coverage last year. Yet there were more battles for the YPG as well: Tel Hamis, al-Hasakah, Sinjar, Sarrin, al-Hawl, and others.
According to the LoR Facebook page, six Western volunteers have been killed while fighting for the YPG in Syria: former Austrialian Army soldier Ashley Johnston, Australian Reese Harding, former Royal Marine Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, American Keith Broomfield, German Kevin Jochim, and German Ivana Hoffman.
Furthermore, it seems life in the YPG is not what many who make the long trip expected. In September, the New York Times interviewed a number of Americans who had volunteered for the LoR in Syria. The general feeling of the volunteers was disappointment, boredom, and humilation. One former oil field worker who preferred to be called Azad said:
“Came all the way over here for nothing. Seems like such a waste of my life. I’ll never get the security clearance to go work the oil fields again. They will do a background check, and Homeland Security won’t like that I’m in a foreign militia. Work your whole life, finally get to the point where you’re making good money and blow that aside to do the right thing, and then when you get here, your hands are tied. It’s a no-win situation. If you go home, you will hate yourself the rest of your life, because maybe you could have made a difference.”
A common theme I have noticed among these volunteers is that the ones who had military experience had never deployed and the rest had simply never been in the military. They wonder why the YPG asks them to stand guard or drive an ambulance, but this is how normal junior soldiers are treated in every military.
I do partially understand the urge to join, though. For veterans who did not deploy I can understand the feeling of missing something in your life — it is why I joined the Army National Guard after serving in the Air Force: I was not satisfied with my deployments and wanted another. And for the younger volunteers I can see wanting to get into some “action” against IS quickly while the Western national armies are slowing down their operations tempos — it is hard for regular soldiers to deploy these days.
But now that the Kurds have secured most of the Kurdish territory in Syria, I wonder how many Western volunteers will stick around. There is still some Kurdish territory to take from IS, but the Kurds have been wisely reluctant to fight for Arab territory. I have read reports that there are anywhere from 100 to 400 Westerners in the LoR in Syria. If they stay in Syria, 2016 will probably mean defending the territory the Kurds nearly tripled in size last year. If they choose to go home, what then? For Zac, a 22 year old Briton wounded while fighting, it will be:
“I’m really looking forward to it at the moment. Everything. Seeing friends, going down the shop, everything that’s in England. I can’t wait to sit down at my computer and waste away.”