The writer said that the rise of IS attracted thousands of foreigners from around the world to Syria. But it wasn’t just religious extremists who were drawn here.
While scores were travelling to Syria for jihad, a smaller but no less committed group of internationalists was heading to the other side of the battle.
“People back home like to think (IS) is just a problem for the Middle East and that’s it,” says Kyle Town, a mild-mannered 30-year-old from Thunder Bay, in Ontario, Canada, using the Arabic name for IS. “But it doesn’t just exist here. It affects everyone.”
Town, a former sheet-metal worker, is among thousands of westerners who travelled to Syria to fight IS and take part in a “revolution” led by SDF in the country’s north.
Among them are former soldiers, charity workers, students, engineers and all manner of anarchists and leftists. Eight Britons who went to fight IS – men and women – martyred in towns and cities unknown to most people back home.
IS’s self-declared caliphate is all but defeated, leaving those who came to fight it at a crossroads. Many say they are not ready to return home, and instead will stay on in Syria.
Town is a member of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has counted thousands of western volunteers in its ranks over the past few years.
The writer said that while IS positioned itself an enemy of democracy, the YPG – through its Kurdish-Arab alliance the Syrian Democratic Forces – set up an autonomous administration that it says will form the basis of a radical, democratic system when the war ends.
For Danielle Ellis, a 29-year-old Oxford graduate from London,
“I initially emailed the YPG, asking to become a soldier. But they didn’t reply,” she says, in an interview with The Independent in the town of Derik, in northern Syria. “That’s probably a good thing, now I think about it.”
After some consideration, she felt her master's degree in engineering could be put to better use elsewhere, so she instead came to work as a non-combatant volunteer with an internationalist commune.
“They needed people with my skill set,” she says. I’ve been working on off grid-power systems, water supply, that kind of thing.”
“In Rojava, we have a principle of free citizenship,” says Nuri Mahmoud, a YPG spokesman. “If they believe in the culture, the history and the philosophy of the region, then they are welcome to be part of this community.”
Hunter Page, a 25-year-old restaurant worker from Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania, was motivated partly by what was happening in his own country. He became disillusioned, he says, following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
“I noticed that the culture of the kitchen, where I worked, became more of a hateful place,” he says, describing the events that brought him here.
“It seemed more people were able to espouse racism and sexism and homophobia in the workplace. It was unchecked. Listening to this day after day, I could feel myself getting affected by it.”
A combination of a stifling political atmosphere in the US and a growing interest in events in Syria led to him making the jump. But there were other motivations, too.
The writer said that where IS is currently making its last stand. In the past few months, as the caliphate has shrunk from a string of villages along the Euphrates river to a few fields, hundreds of Isis fighters and their families have surrendered to the SDF. Some 800 Europeans are now being held by the SDF in camps and jails, among them a handful of Brits and at least two Americans.
Hunter Page said “It’s unfortunate that our platoon only numbers hundreds of volunteers, while IS can claim thousands worldwide. “It would be otherworldly to meet an American, someone who came from a state that I’d been to, had shared experiences, and they decided to go and fight with IS.”
More than a dozen British women and their children are thought to be held in SDF camps, and at least six British IS fighters. One of the most well-known, Shamima Begum, garnered headlines around the world when she fled east London with three school friends in 2015.