Tel Eskof, Iraq – In the small, northern Iraqi town of Tel Eskof, a white pick-up truck rolled down the dirt road towards a nearby frontline, carrying part of a new medical unit.
The men in the truck waved as a tall soldier standing at the roadside, clad in combat gear and dark Ray-Bans, bellowed in an unmistakable southern US drawl: “Welcome to Tel Eskof, y’all!”
Spanning various ages and nationalities, the fighters here comprise part of a small yet well-known contingent of foreign volunteers who left their homes thousands of kilometres away to help the Kurds battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
“They come to help us. It’s good that they’re here, but I don’t know why they would leave their homes for this,” Ahmed, a soldier with the Kurdish Peshmerga, told Al Jazeera in hushed tones.
To many Peshmerga soldiers, these new fighters are a complicated ally, and fear of any negative international attention means that those who arrive with the sole intention of fighting ISIL are often held back from the frontlines – leading some to cross the border into Syria to fight instead with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), where soldiers can move from unit to unit with fewer restrictions.
As many come from civilian backgrounds with no military training, and without local language skills, these volunteer forces are sometimes viewed as a hindrance by those whom they are coming to assist. At least 10 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria have died within just over a year.
Erwin Stan, a former US soldier who fought with both the Peshmerga and the YPG for close to a year in total, says foreign fighters are sometimes used merely to foster a good public image for the Kurds.
“My small group was with the Peshmerga for a few months when we decided to cross into Syria,” Stan, 28, told Al Jazeera. “Fighting had slowed down quite a bit, and when there were fights, it seemed like the Peshmerga were keeping us away from them. We seemed to be brought around cameras and reporters more than the frontline.”
Stan says he was motivated to fight in Syria after a gunman attacked two military institutions in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four marines and a sailor. The gunman was reportedly displeased with the US war on terror.
Stan, who is also a veteran of the Iraq War, said that the motivations of some of the foreign volunteer fighters were mixed.
“I met plenty of volunteers who did have good intentions. They went for the revolution. They went to help in the medical field,” he said, noting that others were not as well-intentioned. “I’ve heard plenty of volunteer combat stories that went public that were completely false. I’ve seen some volunteers getting ‘internet famous’, and they never left the wire.”
Some foreign volunteers operate social media accounts featuring glossy, digitally altered images of them in battle – a phenomenon criticised by other fighters, who believe the priority should be the fight on the ground.
Hannah Bohman, a former Canadian model who left her home in February 2015 to the join the female brigade of the YPG, often features in photographs beside heavy machine guns, such as Dushkas and Kalashnikovs – but she rejects the criticism that some foreign fighters are not taking the task sufficiently seriously.
Some people skydive, some people race cars, and some people like to fight. Who cares what their motives are?
“We’re painted as lost souls or thrill seekers, but so what?” Bohman, 47, told Al Jazeera. “Some people skydive, some people race cars, and some people like to fight. Who cares what their motives are? I would instead ask those people who question our motives why it bothers them so much.”
This strange kaleidoscope of foreign fighters, who drift back and forth along the porous Iraq-Syria border, are often caught up in broader ideological tensions between Iraqi Kurds and the YPG.
Earlier this year, three foreign fighters – who had been smuggled into Syria by the YPG – were arrested by Peshmerga forces upon trying to cross back into Iraq. Despite proclaiming their joint goal of defeating ISIL, they were asked to pay a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,500) for breaking visa regulations, in an incident that highlighted the schism between Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, and the newly self-proclaimed Syrian Kurdish capital of Qamishli.
Joshua Molloy, a 25-year-old British former soldier who was among those arrested, said he felt as if he was being held to “political ransom” for joining the YPG.
“They weren’t interested in gathering intelligence on ISIS. They just asked how much money we had, and who brought us over to YPG,” Molloy told Al Jazeera. “It was like we were being held to some strange political ransom. It was clear that this intolerance of foreign fighters in Syria was a new development, and they were only concerned about money.”
A YPG-linked Facebook page called Lions of Rojava, which was largely seen as a recruitment tool for foreign fighters, began losing steam in recent months after many volunteers found themselves waiting in Iraq for contacts who never materialised.
Former foreign fighters told Al Jazeera that despite the media attention their presence generated, they have felt increasingly unwelcome in both Syria and Iraq. In Iraq’s Kurdish region, there have been regular reports of arrests by the Peshmerga of foreigners attempting to cross in and out of Syria. And this past April, Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa warned that foreigners could complicate matters in the region, advising those who might have been considering joining the Peshmerga to stay at home.
Stan, who is now back in the United States, said that his time fighting with both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds left him conflicted about the role of foreigners in the ongoing conflict.
“In the beginning, I did what many did. ‘Fight ’em here so we don’t have to fight ’em at home’ – all that kind of of talk. Then I realised that this wasn’t really my fight,” he said.
“As I said to the Kurds, ISIS is just another enemy in a long list of enemies who were endangering Kurdish independence. That’s not my fight. Though I support the Kurds fully, I can’t fight their battles for them.”