Westerners joining the fight against ISIL are no heroes

Western anti-ISIL fighters volunteering in Syria and Iraq are doing more harm than good. They should go home.

Kurdish People''s Protection Units fighters carry the coffin of fellow fighter Gallagher, who died on November 4 in battle with Islamic State fighters, during his funeral in Hasaka, Syria
YPG fighters carry the coffin of fighter John Robert Gallagher, a Canadian who died in battle with ISIL fighters, during his funeral in Hasakah, Syria on November 12, 2015 [Reuters/Rodi Said]

It would seem that Syria has enough foreign fighters occupying its lands by now, with Russia, Iran and its militias, and foreigners in the ranks of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). But that hasn’t stopped westerners from flocking to Northern Syria and Iraq to fight against ISIL and getting praised for it.

Although Western media loves them, it has to be made clear that US, Canadian and European citizens who go to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIL are not heroes. They are not fighting imperialism or supporting Kurdish autonomy, and they are not performing an act of charity. Aside from putting themselves and others in danger, they are only complicating affairs for Syrians and Iraqis who are already at the mercy of countless international powers and non-state actors.

These citizens of western countries brag that their exploits in Iraq and Syria defend minorities and are a moral duty. Others see it as an adventure. And then there are those like Canadian former model Hanna Bohman, who go to Syria to alleviate boredom: “I needed to do something with my life. I was bored. I didn’t feel like I had done anything that I felt was really important,” Bohman told CTV News.

If the situation were reversed, though, and the US, Canada or a European country was at war, Africans, Arabs or Kurds who joined any side of the fight wouldn’t be treated as kindly by the very same media organisations, and that is a particularly offensive aspect of this whole trend.  

Nothing charitable about combat

Individuals are not the only culprits. Entire groups are founded and run by westerners in Syria and Iraq to welcome these volunteer fighters. Brookings recently went as far as labelling them “combat charities” in a report. The very term is incredibly disturbing because charity implies that there is a humanitarian aspect to their work. There is nothing humanitarian about contributing to perpetual fighting and war for the sake of curing boredom.

Some of these groups are religious in nature, such as the Sons of Liberty International, which has a Christian leaning, while others are more political in nature, such as the socialist Bob Crow Brigade. Stated aims include free assistance to local groups and revolutionary aspirations, but such groups ignore the larger context in both Syria and Iraq.

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The Bob Crow Brigade in Syria, for example, says it is fighting both ISIL and the “Turkish-backed rebels”, ignoring that these very rebels initially rose against Bashar al-Assad to fight for their own revolution.

Westerners who join anti-ISIL groups don’t acknowledge or understand the Syrian revolution, ignore the consequences of their own countries invading Iraq in 2013, and behave as if defeating ISIL will solve everything.

The US’ atrocious intervention 

Many of these volunteer fighters join the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, which is a US ally and is getting military support from Washington in the fight against ISIL. Reports also indicate that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which fights under the SDF’s umbrella, has sophisticated US weaponry at its disposal, including uniforms and enhancements, as well as access to US special forces on the ground.

The entire idea of the SDF (created under the Obama administration) is problematic not only because it was yet another clear indication that the US played right into the Assad regime’s “terrorism” narrative, but also because the YPG has ties with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which the US has designated as a terrorist organisation.

Then there is the lax attitude of the West towards these fighters. Judging from the ease with which more prominent western fighters make it to Syria or Iraq and then back to their home countries, the US and other Western countries have made it relatively worry-free for their citizens to join these fights.

At the same time, Syrian humanitarian workers with valid visas have been denied entry into the US simply for doing true humanitarian work in Syria or Iraq, such as delivering aid, saving lives after regime attacks, or supporting infrastructure projects. For some reason, a Syrian humanitarian is deemed a greater threat than an intervening US fighter.

Go home where you’re needed

The positive media coverage of westerners who fight against ISIL alongside the SDF or YPG indicates that the perception of foreign fighters and intervention in Syria depends solely on the enemy they’re fighting against.

In other words, there is a double standard in coverage – those who are fighting against ISIL and are of western descent are heroes. People who are of Arab descent, Syrians themselves, fighting the Assad regime as well as ISIL, are painted as al-Qaeda, called terrorists and accused of being shills for Turkey, the Gulf and the US, even though it’s their country they’re fighting for.

True charity begins at home. If these westerners want to help someone, they can help ensure their own backyards, namely the US, Canada and Europe, don’t completely spiral into far-right extremist cesspools post-Brexit and post-Trump. And that won’t cost them a plane ride or oblige them to pick up a weapon.

Malak Chabkoun is an independent Middle East researcher and writer based in the US. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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