An Homage to Rojava: Interview with a YPG Volunteer from Philadelphia

Image caption: a crowd of people stand behind four coffins of YPG volunteers who have been killed; each coffin has flowers and a photograph of the fighter

Interview by EW

Photos by Militan Karker

Militan Karker (Kurdish name) is a union organizer and political activist. He recently returned from volunteering with the YPG in Syria, participating in the retaking of Raqqa and driving of ISIS out of Syria.  

The YPG is a democratic, socialist militia formed out of the struggle by Syrian Kurds for self determination. YPG is an acronym in Kurdish for “People’s Protection Units. They control an area in northern Syria of approximately 4 million people. The YPG subscribes to the political philosophy espoused by Abdullah Öcalan, an iconic Kurdish resistance leader from Turkey. Öcalan was imprisoned on a Turkish prison island in 1999 by the Turkish government and initially sentenced to death, which was later commuted to a life sentence. He converted from a Marxist-Leninist political philosophy to a version of anarchism that was influenced in part by the writings of Vermont anarchist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, an anarchist, labor organizer, and writer; he also founded the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont. He was a pioneering voice for ecology in the Anarchist movement. 

EW: My great uncle, Hymie Wallach, joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in Spain in the 1930’s. He was a Jewish communist who, much like Murray Bookchin, was a member of the Young Communist League in New York, who in the spirit of internationalism, traveled to Spain to fight on behalf of the Spanish Republic against the fascist threat of Francisco Franco, backed by the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

I feel that there are some strong historical parallels between these two conflicts: the apocalyptic Catholic fascism vs the religio-fascism of ISIS; the involvement of many state actors by proxy in the conflict; the fact that in the Kurdish Region of Syria, as in Civil War Spain, Anarchists controlled large regions of their respective countries, a historical situation that has few parallels; and, finally, the involvement in ideologically-motivated foreign volunteers in the conflict, on all sides. I have always been fascinated and awed that my uncle went over and volunteered, and I was impressed that you similarly committed yourself to the conflict in Syria.

To start off the interview, I was listening to a recent episode of the Intercepted podcast, with journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewing an expert from the American University of Beirut about conflict in the Arab world. They discuss the conflict in Syria, during which Scahill, to my surprise, states that in Syria, there are no good guys, at least in regards to armed groups. He states that the religious and secular factions in the conflict have all be neutralized and that the forces of Bashar Al Assad are basically ascendant. I found this a puzzling omission, but I believe that this conflict, particularly its significance, are not well recognized. It has become a bit of a cause célèbre in leftist circles, but the successes of the YPG against ISIS and the significance of their struggle are lost on the wider public.  

MK: Yeah, I’m surprised Scahill missed that. It is true that most of the early secular opposition to the regime collapsed rapidly. The only significant opposition, outside of the YPG, was Islamist. Actually, one of the first groups the YPG combated was the Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Al-Nusra Front. This is why significant portions of US arms ended up in the hands of ISIS and other radical Islamists, because the US was first backing a rootless movement that quickly evaporated into groups like Al-Nusra.

EW: How did you hear about the YPG in Syria? Can you talk a bit about your motivations for joining up with them? Your training? Can you tell us a bit about the process of reaching Syria?  

MK: When I was 19, I invited a Kurdish activist from Turkey to speak to my college. He spoke about the injustices and oppression that the Kurdish people have been facing and continue to face, throughout the Middle East. I have been following their struggle ever since. After ISIS moved to conquer Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish city on the Turkish border, the world first began paying attention to the Kurdish resistance in Syria. It is where the US first began to support them with airpower. I remember watching this battle unfold and feeling moved.

The YPG’s defeat of ISIS in Kobane was a major turning point in that war and was the start of the downfall of ISIS. Soon after their defeat, an ISIS suicide bomber struck a gathering of leftist activists just over the border in Turkey, killing 33 people, and their faces stuck with me. A couple years later I began hearing about internationals volunteering with the YPG. When a fellow union organizer, Michael Israel, was killed by a Turkish airstrike while he was fighting ISIS, I decided I should go.

The political shift you talked about earlier, to a more democratic and libertarian socialism, was another deciding factor. While ISIS is obviously objectively terrible, replacing their terror with a new system based on democracy, socialism, and freedom was a contrast hard to pass up. It was something different, something exciting, something worth putting your life on the line for.

Getting into Syria is extremely difficult for obvious reasons. The only way in is through a small stretch of border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Further complicating matters, Iraqi Kurdistan is split into two spheres of influence: the right of center KDP to the West, and the left of center PUK to the East. Unfortunately the border is to the West, so the journey starts in the Eastern city of Slemani. From there, you are smuggled across northern Iraq and cross into Syria overnight to avoid detection. From there, you get a good month of training.

YPG 2_photo by Militan Karker
Children stand on a dirt road; one is holding a Rojava flag

EW: I do get the impression that the Kurds, in Syria specifically but also in Iraq in the form of the Peshmerga, are a relatively small force in world politics, but one that punches above its weight. What can you say about the situation of the YPG and the Kurds in Syria? Is their position secure? Are they in control of their region of Syria? Is the Assad regime a credible threat to them? And how have the YPG been so effective considering that they seem to field a relatively small military force?  

MK: The history of the Kurdish people, whether Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria, has been to fight or die. That history of struggle will give one the ability to punch above their weight. The Kurds in Syria, although small in number, now control a massive amount of the northern part of the country. ISIS fighters, at their peak, outnumbered Kurdish fighters on a massive scale. That being said, the YPG have been able to demolish their forces steadily, US air support aside.  

In regions like Derick, Hesseke, Qamishlo or any other towns to the North, where there is a healthy Kurdish population, they have solid control with widespread support. Simply being in uniform in those regions would get you random praise and free ice cream. In regions like Raqqa and further south, in predominantly Arab areas, you can sense a difference, a greater suspicion, although I would argue the YPG have far more credibility with the people there than ISIS or the regime. Their effectiveness is first due to a united front and sense of solidarity and a strong belief in a value system, Democratic Confederalism. That value system guides them to go out of their way, not only with gender equality, but also making sure that Arabs, Syriacs, Yazidis, and all ethnic groups feel included and have a say in Rojava. The creation of the SDF, a primarily Arab force aligned with the YPG, is an example of this. They are making real progress.

EW: I got the impression from some your posts on Facebook that you were involved in the retaking of Raqqa. What was that like?  

MK: While the occasional bullet would whizz over your head, Raqqa was and is a city full of mined houses. It made fighting and movement extremely dangerous. Once ISIS fighters felt overwhelmed, they would heavily mine houses and withdraw further into the heart of the city.  Taking territory proved to be extremely deadly, and most casualties were the results of mines.

EW: I have read that the YPG were very much in need of volunteers in their fight, and so the foreign volunteers were quickly put into the fighting. Were you heavily involved in the fighting?

MK: As the Raqqa offensive had just gotten underway, many foreign fighters were quickly put into fighting. While I was training four were lost, including one I knew from the group that left just prior to mine. I first was dispatched to Al-Shaddadah, a strategic town to the East recently liberated from ISIS and a YPG HQ of the eastern front, but only after a couple weeks I found myself in Raqqa with a battalion of international YPG fighters.

The battalion’s assault team, made up of fighters braver than I, saw most of the fighting. On operations, we would follow them into the fighting downtown, but I spent most of my time in Raqqa guarding our various bases and helping to keep the battalion functioning logistically. There is a saying that war is 95% waiting around and 5% terror, that’s accurate.

Most of what I owe to getting out alive is luck and timing. On one operation into the middle of Raqqa, our SDF escort took a sniper round to the chest a block or so away and died a few hours later. We were held up in a forward base and ended up pulling out, only to retake the territory later. After about a month in Raqqa, our commander got injured during an operation and the battalion headed to the Shaddadah front for training and to regroup. In the building where I slept the first night there was a black mark on the sidewalk and burned shrapnel impacts everywhere along the building. It turns out that just a few days prior ISIS had infiltrated the base with suicide bombers and one had denoted himself feet from where I would be sleeping.

Shaddahi was attacked twice while we were there, but ISIS was never able to infiltrate the base again. Soon after we arrived in AShaddadah, the neighborhood where our first operations base in Raqqa was situated was attacked, including the YPG media center, a place I had been several times. I lost a friend and comrade in that attack, UK based Kurdish activist and radical democratic socialist Mehmet Aksoy.  Luck and timing.

YPG 3_photo by Militan Karker
YPG fighers are lined up on each side of a dirt road; one is holding a YPG flag

EW: In an article about the conflict from Rolling Stone, in which a journalist is briefly embedded with a YPG unit of foreign volunteers, a European volunteer states that ISIS have tens of thousands of volunteers from the middle East, possibly thousands from Europe. One the other side, the YPG has a relative handful of European and American volunteers, and a few from other regions of the globe. Can you tell the Partisan, were there a lot of foreign volunteers that you encountered?

MK: The Jihadi volunteers clearly outnumbered us, but there were a significant number of foreign volunteers from all over the world; Brazil, Spain, Australia, Turkey, Germany, Finland, Italy, the US and UK, just to name a few; who came to fight for freedom. They were a mix of politically driven folks like me, military/political folks, and some just ex-military looking to fight ISIS.

EW: Can you tell our readers what conditions are like in the Kurdish free state in Syria?  It seems that they are hemmed in on all sides by mostly hostile forces?  Is their position tenable?  

MK: Syria is a poor country, and it was a poor region in Syria. That being said, outside of the occasional ISIS attack in the south, the YPG enjoys widespread support amongst the population. Rojava produces way more food and oil than it needs and can be self-sufficient. It has been in a state of war from many years, and it shows, but rebuilding is underway and the first phase of democratic elections has begun. Obviously their international isolation, orchestrated by Turkey and the Syrian regime, is hurting them but hopefully that will begin to chip away. Turkey’s right-wing government, who preferred ISIS controlling the territory, is their biggest threat. The Syrian Kurds having a free autonomous state would encourage Turkey’s large and historically oppressed (Kurdish) population to keep fighting for the same. Further, every minute Rojava continues to thrive, it serves as a shining example of how the Turkish state’s propaganda against the left wing Kurdish movement is garbage.

EW: I am interested in the idea of the Kurds in Syria in Iraq and Syria forming something of a parallel state, a set of parallel institutions that mirror those of the state that they are separating from, like the autonomist groups in Germany or the numerous organizations formed by communist and left wing labor unions in the USA in the early 20th century. Do you feel that the Kurds in Syria have truly formed an independent state within Syria?  

MK: While the regime still controls some pockets, including in the “capital” Qamishlo, the region is truly autonomous. They are in full control of the political, economic, and security systems.  

EW: Is there anything that American leftists can do to support the struggle of the YPG in Syria, short of volunteering militarily? Is it still possible to volunteer as you did?  

MK: As talked about above, the biggest threats to them at the moment are Turkey and the Syrian regime. Turkey is a NATO country and has strong military and political ties to the US. It has also been spiraling into fascism since Erdoğan seized power and began cracking down on the left, civil society, and the Kurds. American leftists should be pressuring their government to cut military ties and all arms deals with Turkey. Politically, should be mobilizing support for Rojava and the Kurds amongst the population.

YPG 1_photo by Militan Karker
A few backpacks and a rifle lean up against wall with ‘YPG’ spray-painted on it

EW: I was reading a history of the Spanish Civil War recently, entitled Spain In Our Hearts. The author, Adam Hochschild, writes that the peasants in many parts of Spain were open to anarchist ideas as they already meshed with some very old, pre-modern notions of communal property, practices that persisted in many Spanish villages, such as the sharing of communal fishing nets in many fishing villages. Do you think there were similar reasons why the Anarchist philosophy of Öcalan has taken hold so strongly in that region?  

MK: Possibly? The Kurds, if you look at recent history, really needed to unite or die. The right wing of the Kurdish movement (the KDP) is in full retreat and the left is on the rise. I think Öcalan is right with his pivot away from the traditional authoritarian left, not only politically and morally, but it gives his movement more practical credibility with the population.  

I didn’t get to spend a huge amount of time researching and experiencing civil society and the transformations happening in Rojava. I did, however, meet with two people in charge of restructuring the criminal justice system to a more direct democratic model.  

They said they were able to resolve 75% of disputes informally that normally would have gone through a state/court/prison apparatus. Further, a good chunk of the other quarter dealt with trying to figure out what to do with captured ISIS fighters.

Even then, they have been trying hard to rehabilitate the youth fighters, many of whom are in their early teens whose parents migrated to Syria to fight with ISIS. These kids, some orphans, are offered voluntary classes in women’s rights and democratic confederalism. Many have taken to them, and with careful monitoring and communication, some have been released back into society.

EW: To close this interview, I just want to thank you for taking time to answer these questions.  If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free.  

MK: Thanks Eian for your interest in the struggle in Rojava and the opportunity for this interview.  Biji berwedana!!

YPG 6_photo by Militan Karker
A YPG mural features 16 portraits, two rifles, and a world map. The mural reads ‘Komina Enternasyonalist A Rojava.’

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