The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the most effective groups battling the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, boasts that dozens of foreign volunteer fighters from around the world now serve in its ranks on the battlefield.
These fighters came to Syria for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to a desire to fight ISIS and stop the atrocities they have committed across Syria.
Although the extent of their military impact on the front line remains unclear, many of these fighters have become increasingly important in terms of the YPG’s media strategy, making headlines across the globe.
Speaking to Syria Deeply, Michael Enright, a British YPG volunteer who left behind his acting career in Hollywood, explained that foreign fighters often participate in direct combat against ISIS alongside Kurdish troops. “Sometimes we’ll clear a village and go in every single house,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll work in teams of three different groups, and we can usually clear two or three blocks at a time.”
Earlier this year, Enright was the subject of a heated war of words between himself and Jordan Matson, a fellow YPG volunteer who frequently appears in international media. Writing on his Facebook, Matson claimed that Enright had been asked to leave the YPG and called on the U.S. State Department to remove Enright from Syria. YPG fighters have declined to comment on whether Enright was asked to leave, and Enright himself denies the allegation altogether.
According to Enright, he and other non-Syrian fighters endure the same wartime conditions as their Kurdish partners. “When we’re out on an operation we live in bombed-out buildings with no power or running water,” he explained.
Clearly their role is perilous. The Lions of Rojava, an YPG media arm, recently reported on its Facebook page that American volunteer Keith Broomfield had died in Syria in June. The page also lists the deaths of at least four more foreign fighters.
While there’s no question that many of the foreign volunteers are fighting alongside Kurds in dangerous situations, measuring their impact remains more complicated, says Phillip Lohaus, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon analyst.
Estimating that around 100 foreigners have taken up arms with the YPG, Lohaus explains that their roles are not necessarily combative. “Most reports indicate that, despite requiring recruits to have had combat experience, few if any of the foreign fighters that have joined the YPG are seeing combat,” he told Syria Deeply.
Certainly, the YPG has a high turnover rate of foreign recruits, according to Enright. This, he asserts, is due to frustration over the lack of a bigger role in the fighting. “I think there’s a certain amount of frustration because they don’t see as much action as they would like,” said Enright.
Others have defected over political differences with the YPG, with some joining different militias in nearby Iraq instead.
Many challenges make it difficult for foreign recruits to experience combat action says Lohaus. “A lack of language skills could be a very serious hindrance preventing these fighters from joining the YPG in combat,” he explained.
Others come to the region with few relevant skills. “Depending on the recruit’s level of experience, some may be involved in training YPG fighters. Yet few of the Americans that have joined the YPG (or those from other nationalities for that matter) appear to have much, if any, experience conducting such tasks,” Lohaus added.
Akeed is an American volunteer who goes by a pseudonym for fear of his family’s safety back in the U.S. He says he led a group of around a dozen volunteers who joined the YPG in July. His testimony, in contrast, demonstrates the valuable experience such fighters have brought to the YPG, especially in light of recent U.S. and U.K. involvement in the region’s conflicts. “There are lots of ex-military [in the unit],” he told Syria Deeply. “We have helicopter pilots and tank operators, among others.”
As Lohaus points out, though, this does not equate to the YPG providing any meaningful training.
Foreign volunteer Michael Enright, who admits he had no prior military experience before showing up in Syria five months back, says he received “a little” basic combat – lasting a week – and Kurdish language instruction upon arrival. Like others, he has learned some indispensable Kurdish phrases in the field: “Duck!”; “Shoot!”; “Throw your grenade!”
While many questions remain about the utility of foreign volunteers, their propaganda value is much more obvious. “Putting a Western face on a foreign problem helps make the conflict more relatable to people in the West,” said Lohaus, “and also may increase the credibility of YPG efforts to Western audiences.”
Louis, a former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan war veteran, fights in the Assyrian Christian Dwekh Nawsha armed group in neighboring Iraq, which is allied with peshmerga (Kurdish military) forces. Asked why he believed he was allowed to join, he replied, “Media attention definitely, and in their [Assyrian] communities it builds hope and morale in the men.” He also noted that his and other volunteers’ military experience was a big draw.
The foreign fighters and their supporters admit that propaganda value factors into their roles. The Liberty Lions Facebook page is dedicated to disseminating YPG-related news and is popular among fighters and their support alike. The page’s manager, who requested anonymity, said, “The foreign fighters have affected the morale of people, and they leave behind a spirit of brotherhood and internationalism.”
Enright acknowledges that this may be a reason why the YPG welcomes foreign members. “That [media exposure] might be one of the reasons. I think the Kurds feel so isolated and friendless,” he said. He added that his commanding officers told him to “do interviews and get our point of view across,” further indicating the YPG’s media strategy regarding its foreign fighters.
Moreover, the fact that the YPG is willing to accept fighters without combat experience indicates, in spite of what they say on social media, that they have other uses for their Western comrades. As well as their media role, Enright claims that some fighters have medical and communication jobs.
Foreign participation in the Syrian Civil War is not limited to the YPG. ISIS is thought to have hosted over 20,000 foreigners. This includes an estimated 30–40 Americans and 500 Britons, far exceeding the amount of Westerners fighting against the group. The Assad regime too has utilized foreign fighters from Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Enright explained what prompted him to leave his home in Los Angeles and move to Syria to fight ISIS: “[James Foley] was a journalist who was just trying to tell the world what was going on in this region. And he had his hands tied behind his back and his head cut off by a coward – specifically an English coward,” he said, also citing al-Qaida’s September 2001 attacks on the U.S. and the plight of the Yazidi people under attack by ISIS in Iraq.
Akeed recounts being motivated by religious conviction. “I’m a really strong Christian. Knowing that you’ve got a radical group out there telling you to renounce Christianity or we’re going to kill you just doesn’t sit real well with me,” he said.
The Lions of Rojava Facebook page has over 21,000 likes to date, many from Westerners. Every day people ask how they can join Enright, Akeed and the thousands of Kurdish fighters in the YPG. As more foreigners, particularly those with valuable military experience, join the YPG, their effect on the organization’s military strength will increase. In the meantime, these fighters will continue to be a useful tool in broadcasting the Syrian Kurds’ struggle against ISIS to the world.
Hokar Ibrahim contributed to this report.
Top photo: Pictures of slain Kurdish fighters hang from the wall of a YPG military position in Syria on November 2, 2014. (Associated Press)