A very secular jihad

Western fighters on the Kurdish front lines is a counter-narrative to the thousands of foreigners who have joined ISIL.

A British military adviser instructs Kurdish Peshmerga fighters during a training session in Arbil [AFP/Getty Images]

This weekend it was reported that two Britons, Jamie Read and James Hughes, the latter a former soldier, have joined a small band of foreigners fighting alongside the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG). The YPG, also known as the People’s Protection Units, have been central to the defence of northern Syria against the encroachment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

This perilous decision has seen them join other foreigners, including Americans and Canadians, who have separately taken the same decision to fight along the Kurdish militia. While the numbers of this group are still too small to be seen as part of a growing trend, their move will have been welcomed, if nothing else for publicity purposes, by the besieged defenders of Kobane.  

The news that there are foreign combatants on both sides is a reminder of how conflicts attract outsiders and raises questions about the motives of the protagonists and the contribution they make.

Under the banner of Edmund Burke’s quote that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” the western fighters spell out their motives in a Facebook post writing that: “They will not do nothing while innocent Kurdish men, women and children, Yazidis, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and regional minorities of all kinds are tortured and murdered by Islamic State.”

Lofty sentiments

Yet, despite such lofty sentiments, the motives that drive someone to travel abroad to fight in a foreign conflict are as varied and as complex as the participants themselves.

Foreign fighters back war on ISIL

Idealism mixed with a romanticised misunderstanding of conflict is, of course, a key factor particularly when there is an ideological backdrop to the conflict. The most famous example of this is the sentimentalised, and much misunderstood, Spanish Civil War which drew thousands of idealistic adventures to both sides.

More recently, similar motives led the renowned journalist Jason Burke, to join the Kurds in Iraq in their struggle against Saddam Hussein.

“It was the end of my second year at university and the Gulf War had just finished. I neither wanted to go inter-railing nor work in Waitrose,” he said in a self-deprecating account of his summer holidays.

Money can be a factor and under the Geneva Convention for a combatant to be classified as a mercenary they must be “motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain”. Hence reports describing these two Britons as such are mistaken. The likelihood is they would have financed their own journey to northern Syria, bought their own weapons and can only expect basic sustenance in return for their efforts.

Combat also draws, as it creates, a handful of psychopaths. One of the key protagonists of the 1972 Northern Ireland Bloody Sunday shooting was the Greek Cypriot Costas Georgiou. After ultimately having been dishonourably discharged from the British army for robbing a post office, he joined the civil war in Angola where he infamously executed his own men before he was, in turn, executed by the victorious People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Yet inexplicable as it may seem to many, the mere thrill of combat is often the primary motivating factor. While ideological reasons are cited in justification, the real reason many individuals travel abroad to fight is an age old search of adventure. This more than anything may have played its part in luring westerners to the Kurdish cause, just as others before them went to Bosnia or Rhodesia. The difference being, this time the war against ISIL provides a useful pretext for their actions.

Idealism mixed with a romanticised misunderstanding of conflict is, of course, a key factor particularly when there is an ideological backdrop to the conflict. The most famous example of this is the sentimentalised, and much misunderstood, Spanish Civil War…

Personal endeavour

Regardless of the motives for joining a foreign conflict, it is ultimately a personal endeavour that rarely brings much benefit to the side whose cause has been adopted particularly, as in this instance, when the numbers involved are so small.

Unless an individual has a specific and sought after set of skills, such as being a doctor, mechanic, engineer or weapons specialist, it is difficult for them to make a significant contribution. Even the expert training former western soldiers might bring to this conflict will be negated by their inability to communicate with their Kurdish counterparts.

The fact is only foreign governments can really help in the fight against ISIL. The coalition air strikes, the equipment being provided by the German government or the large scale training missions currently under discussion between Erbil and the US government, are ultimately of infinite more value than the contribution of individuals.

That said, the arrival of these westerners alongside the battling YPG is not without benefit. Their presence will undoubtedly raise morale and bring much welcome publicity to the cause, even if this may be offset by ISIL’s claims that their fight is now against western invaders.

For now, the involvement of western fighters on the Kurdish front lines is little more than a news story and counter-narrative to the many thousands of foreigners from across the world who have joined ISIL. If they are to have any effect, then they must hope that their example somehow galvanises thousands of others. Otherwise, their contribution will remain little more than symbolic.

Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.