Dozens of Western ‘freelance fighters’ embedded with anti-ISIS forces in Syria

Kurdish YPG SyriaDozens of Western European and American citizens are participating in the ongoing takeover of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria, despite being prohibited from doing so by their own governments, according to recent news reports. Much has been written about foreign fighters who enter Iraq and Syria in order to join the ranks of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that previously went by the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But relatively little attention has been paid to the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to the region to join the war against ISIS.

In late 2015, independent researcher Nathan Patin published “The Other Foreign Fighters”, a rare examination of Americans who had joined the various armed groups fighting ISIS in the region. Patin found that at least 200 Americans had attempted to travel to the region in order to join the fight against ISIS as ‘freelance fighters’. Roughly half of those had managed to embed themselves with armed —primarily Kurdish— groups, and saw action on the ground. In 2016, three British and Irish anti-ISIS volunteers were jailed by Iraqi authorities while attempting to return to Europe after having fought for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The three were initially suspected of being foreign ISIS volunteers, but were released from prison in April of 2016, after the YPG verified their bona fides.

A recent report by The Los Angeles Times claims that there are still “several dozen” Western volunteers embedded with anti-ISIS militias in Syria. They are doing so in the face of warnings by European and American government agencies that freelance participation in the Syrian civil war is a potentially punishable offense. The Times cited “local estimates” and spoke to Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa, who said that “several foreign volunteers” were embedded in YPG units. Most, though certainly not all of them, said Frat, had prior military experience. According to the paper, at least three Western volunteers, one British and two American citizens, have died in recent days, as YPG forces are closing in on the de facto ISIS capital. The US Departments of State and Defense, which are tacitly in support of the YPG and other Kurdish groups operating in Syria, did not comment on The Los Angeles Times report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2017 | Permalink

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British, Irish citizens who fought the Islamic State are released from prison

Joe AckermanTwo British and one Irish citizen, who fought with Kurdish units against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but were imprisoned in Iraqi Kurdistan while they were trying to return to Europe, have been freed. The three men are Joshua Molloy, from County Laois in the Republic of Ireland, Jac Holmes from Bournemouth, England, and Joe Ackerman (pictured), from the West Yorkshire city of Halifax in England’s northern region. All three joined Kurdish militias and saw action in Syria and Iraq in recent months.

Holmes, a former information technology manager, had no military experience when, in early 2015, aged 22, he entered Syria, aiming to join Kurdish forces. He soon enlisted in the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The Englishman from Bournemouth participated in several battles, but returned to the United Kingdom in June 2015, in order to recover from a bullet wound to the shoulder, which he suffered while in the battlefield. As soon as he was cured, he returned to Syria and rejoined the YPG. His compatriot, Joe Ackerman, is a former member of the British armed forces who traveled to Kurdistan last year and joined the YPG after entering Syria illegally. He too was eventually injured when his patrol was struck by a roadside bomb. The third man, Irishman Joshua Molloy, is also a former soldier, having served in the British Royal Irish Regiment, an infantry regiment of the British Army.

Many Western governments, including the British and Irish governments, maintain that their citizens who fight in the Syrian civil war may be prosecuted under counterterrorism legislation, even if they have fought against the Islamic State. But that has not stopped hundreds of Westerners from traveling to Syria and Iraq to join mostly Kurdish, Assyrian and other forces. Last December, intelNews reported on a study that identified over 108 American citizens who had enlisted in the various militias and armed groups fighting against the Islamic State. Nearly half of them had joined the YPG in Syria, while others had enlisted in the peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq, as well as in an assortment of Christian militias, including the Nineveh Plains Protection Units and the Dwekh Nawsha.

According to reports, Holmes, Ackerman and Molloy were on their way back to Europe and trying to cross from Syria into northern Iraq, when they were captured by Iraqi Kurdish government forces. They were jailed for over a week in the Kurdish city of Irbil while their captors tried to verify that they were not Islamic State volunteers. They were released on Sunday. In a statement issued last weekend, the British Foreign Office said it was helping its two citizens return to England as soon as possible.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2016 | Permalink

Study: Who are the Americans fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

ISIS - JFMuch emphasis has been given to the Islamic State’s Western recruits, but there is almost nothing known about Westerners fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Last week, an investigative website published the first substantial study on the subject, focusing on volunteers who are citizens of the United States. Entitled “The Other Foreign Fighters”, the study focuses on those Americans who have voluntarily traveled to the Middle East to take up arms against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It was authored by Nathan Patin, an independent researcher who often publishes his work through Bellingcat, a website specializing in open-source investigations.

Patin reports that there are roughly 200 Americans who have either entered or attempted to enter Syria and Iraq in efforts to battle ISIS. Of those, at least 108 have spent time the region and enlisted in the various militias and armed groups that are fighting ISIS. Based on open sources, Patin claims that at least two thirds of the Americans fighting ISIS have previously served in the US Armed Forces, mostly in the Marine Corps and Army. Almost all of them are in their 20s and 30s and one of them is female. The majority have spent between one and four months on the battlefield in Iraq, Syria, or both. However, almost a third had little or no military experience prior to joining the war against ISIS. They included Keith Broomfield, 36, who died earlier this year while fighting ISIS in Kobani, Syria.

Almost half of the Americans tracked by Patin have fought for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. Others have enlisted in the peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq, as well as in an assortment of Christian militias, including the Nineveh Plains Protection Units and the Dwekh Nawsha. There are major questions about the legality of the American volunteers’ actions, according to American law. The US Department of State does not include the YPG or the PUK in its official list of foreign terrorist organizations. But the PKK, which cooperates with both groups, is designated by Washington as a terrorist outfit. It is important to note, however that the Bellingcat study does not cover the legality of the American volunteers’ actions in Iraq and Syria. Finally, it is worth pointing out that almost nothing is known about several hundred Westerners from countries other than the US, who are also fighting against ISIS in the region. They include citizens of Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and many other countries.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 December 2015 | Permalink