Caught in the tangled spider web of alliances and factions of the Syrian Civil War are the Kurds. Geography has not been kind to this Iranian ethnic group which has historically dwelled in what is now eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northern Syria. The Kurds have always lived on the borders of empires, stretching back to the times of Alexander. The Ottomans and Safavids fought bitterly over the land. So did Atatürk and the Entente, and today it’s the melange of powers great and small that are using the Syrian Civil War as a chessboard for their own designs.
Still, if there is a time for the Kurds to finally grasp more autonomy, that time is now. The brutal civil war that is raging on in Syria provides an unfortunate but excellent opportunity for the Kurdish people to fight for a home of their own. At the same time, the balance of power in the region hangs on a razor’s edge, and the Kurds have to be careful not to provoke the powerful entities using the region for their own gains. They have already proven themselves in combat, largely responsible for pushing back and destroying ISIS. Though that threat has been dealt with, they still have to weather the Turkish onslaught.
Many foreigners have taken up the Kurdish struggle as their own, pledging corpus and Kalashnikov to the idea of a democratic, autonomous Kurdistan. Two of these volunteers, Chris Helali and Hunter Pugh, agreed to speak with me and detail what life was like fighting for the Kurds in the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel — the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
It’s difficult to narrow down a specific start date for the Kurdish struggle, but like all Middle Eastern history, the end of World War I is a good place to start. After the Ottoman Empire had been filleted and gutted by the Entente powers, the Kurds believed that they might get their own country. History did not work out in their favor.
For Chris Helali, the fight had a personal stake — he comes from a Kurdish family of Iranian origin. Prior to fighting with the YPG, he was in the U.S. military, but became a conscientious objector after receiving orders to Afghanistan. He is well-versed in the history of the region and gave me some much-needed background knowledge in our interview.
“When Turkey became a secular Republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s, the Kurds got the shaft end of the deal because they were promised a level of autonomy and self-determination,” he tells me. “But that was revoked for a policy known as Turkification. So, basically, the Kurds were extinguished in terms of a unique people and community with their own language, their own culture and their own living heritage.” This process was not a peaceful shift, and there were many massacres.
After World War II finally came to a close, the Kurds had a short-lived autonomous region to themselves, called the Republic of Mahabad, backed by the Soviet Union. “A lot of the movement for Kurdish self-determination was really pushed by what we would consider to be the Communist Bloc,” states Helali. This backing and influence have shaped Kurdish history to this day; most of the Kurds who are fighting for self-determination are leftists themselves.
“They initiated a guerrilla war starting in the ’70s, the Maoist uprising of Turkey. And then this young man, Abdullah Öcalan, who was a student at the time, from southern Turkey — an area that we would understand to be part of historical or geographical Kurdistan — he got together with a bunch of other students and they founded the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK,” says Helali. “The PKK started out as a Marxist-Leninist party. It was backed by the Soviet Union and received weapons from communist Hungary, communist Poland, East Germany, communist Bulgaria and Romania, as well as arms from the Soviet Union itself.”
Despite Turkey’s hatred of the group, the YPG was seen as instrumental in the destruction of ISIS, known as “Daesh” in common parlance. It was during their fight against Daesh in the mid-2010s that the YPG became so well-known to Westerners. Seeing an opportunity to fight against Daesh and to help traditionally oppressed peoples gain a homeland, many leftists joined International Freedom Battalions (IFB), harking back to the famous International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, who fought against the fascist Nationalists. The IFB was quickly merged into the YPG proper, with battalions often divided up based on ethnicity or language.
Hunter Pugh grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, working in restaurants after he graduated high school, but around 2016, he heard about internationalists going over to Syria to help the fight against Daesh.
“I first went in 2018 — I was in Syria for about a year, with the YPG,” Pugh tells me. “I was deployed and went on operations three times in the Deir ez-Zor region. Towards the end of the war with Daesh — the ground war, we can say — around February, 2019, my unit was no longer going on combat operations. So, I decided to go back to America, figure my life out, so to speak. Then Turkey invaded northern Syria, and I came back in November, 2019.”
Something that might come as a surprise is just how easy it is to go fight in a war across the sea. Pugh says, “There are very few hoops you have to jump through, in retrospect. It’s like, ‘Wow, that was almost too easy.’ Initially, you make contact with the YPG International. We call them “responsibles”, the people who set this whole program up. You email them over an encrypted server, there’s a bit of back and forth as they kind of figure out who you are, what your intentions are and what kind of person you are, like a recruitment process. If you pass the bar, they say, ‘You’re welcome to come to Syria.’”
It’s hard to separate politics from the reasoning to join another nation’s military and fight an enemy that is not directly yours, but nonetheless, not everyone who fights for the YPG does so for purely political reasons, despite the inherently political nature of the conflict.
“We have a mixed bunch of people who are a lot of leftists, very politically minded, and then we have other people who kind of fall under the category of former military who maybe didn’t get what they were looking for in their country’s military. And then, of course, there’s kind of a separate category of adventure seekers,” Pugh says.
Helali goes on to tell me that some of the people who join for political reasons are even radical right-wingers. “Now, there were other internationalists who went for drastically different ideological reasons. So, there were people who were there who were neo-Nazis, who went because the Kurds are themselves Aryan, and they were fighting against non-Aryans. So, they saw themselves as protectors of the Aryan peoples.
“There were many fascists, as well as people who were just non-ideological, but went there to fight against the Islamic State and to kill as many radical Muslims as they wanted. And those were a lot of former military people, as well as people who weren’t in the military, but had this strong hatred and animosity towards Muslims or Arabs. And they saw it as an opportunity to get free bullets and free opportunity to kill.”
An unfortunate reality is that the Syrian Civil War has opened up many opportunities for thrill-seekers and racists to join the cause for no other reason than as a carte blanche for killing. But, one must still remember that at the end of the day, this conflict is that of the Kurdish people, and that just because a Westerner is fighting for them does not mean that their views are those of the YPG. Helali also says that he believes a majority of the people in the IFB were there for the right reasons: fighting fascism in all forms.
So, what is life like on the ground for a foreign YPG combatant? “It was very tough,” says Helali. “It definitely was not what you imagine compared to how the U.S. operates overseas. They build a forward operating base, and then build the rear base that has a McDonald’s and Subway.
“No, this was a completely different type of work. You know, this was basically, ‘All right, now we’ve entered into this town, check all the houses and get whatever.’ We need batteries, fuel tanks, diesel, generators, mattresses — we’d take people’s mattresses, we take people’s pillows, blankets — we took all that stuff because we needed it. We didn’t carry any of that stuff. My pack had my diary, some personal belongings and ammunition. That was it. I carried almost 1,000 rounds.”
The YPG is mainly a light infantry force, meaning that they do not have much in the way of armored vehicles and motorized transportation. This means that logistics, the backbone of any conflict, is much more difficult. Unlike a large nation like the U.S., which can airdrop supplies to any corner of the world in hours, the YPG have to live off the land while forward deployed.
In the rear (military jargon for areas that are controlled by friendly forces, as opposed to the front), the supply situation was different. “An interesting thing about the logistics was that a lot of our food was coming with U.S. logistical support,” Helali says. “We sometimes ate chicken in the rear. You’d get a box of it frozen and it would say ‘Tyson Corporation’ — it would have U.S. markings on it!”
The U.S. wasn’t only supplying the YPG, however. Via the CIA’s covert Timber Sycamore program, the U.S. flooded the Middle East with weapons to supply rebels fighting Assad in 2013. The program was heavily criticized, as many of the weapons ended up in the hands of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, another jihadist organization.
“ISIS had much better weapons than we did,” Helali says, “because of the fact that they had a lot of U.S. arms, a lot of M16s, .50 cal [machine guns]. We didn’t have any of that kind of stuff. I mean, here we are using ragtag arms that were taken or that the YPG had for decades, and ISIS had all new state of the art stuff.”
Besides the danger that comes with fighting a ruthless terrorist organization, there’s also the difficulty of telling your loved ones that you’ve gone to take up arms for a group that many Westerners struggle to even pronounce. Pugh found a way to mitigate this: “Yeah, so the first time that I came here, I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. I didn’t want anyone to stop me. I didn’t go through that emotional process with them.”
He eventually managed to find support though. “I think with my parents, there was definitely an initial shock that they had to get over. But once I explained more about what was going on here and who I was with and what we were fighting for, and who we were fighting against, I would definitely say that my friends and family were very supportive.”
Helali says, “My dad wasn’t pleased because my dad was in the Iranian Revolution. He said, ‘We left over there to come to have a better life here so that you wouldn’t have to go and fight.’ And you know, he was very upset that I volunteered. My mom was very worried. Friends and family knew what I was doing, many of them were worried and were not as supportive, as you could imagine. A lot of my comrades were very supportive, but my family not so much, because they just found it to be absolutely insane and crazy that I would volunteer to go and fight one of the dirtiest and most dangerous wars of the 21st century.”
After the defeat of ISIS, it could be reasonably assumed that the YPG’s fight was over. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Turkey is now invading the region and conducting airstrikes against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, as Erdogan’s government does not support the idea of an autonomous Kurdistan. The Trump administration allowed this to happen, bending to Turkey’s will and selling out the Kurds, an ally, in the process. Unlike ISIS, the Turks are a modern, fully-equipped military, complete with aircraft and drones. It’s now a much different fight, and one that looks grim.
“We don’t want to be under the heel of some international power,” Pugh tells me. “The people here want to be able to settle their own affairs on their terms. And they want to cultivate and grow this idea of a grassroots democracy without being beholden to international powers. Really, I think the main goal here is that the whole world understands that this isn’t some violent or heavy-handed communist nation. This isn’t some kind of terrorist-held territory.”
800 years ago, another Kurd, Saladin, won a decisive victory at Hattin which effectively expelled the invading Crusaders from the Holy Land. He had the backing of an entire caliphate behind him. The Kurds today are in dire need of reliable allies. Fighting a modern military on foot, foraging for food and blankets, using Cold War-era weaponry against NATO’s second largest army; the cards are not in the Kurds’ favor. Their plight echoes one felt across the globe: an otherwise peaceful people struggling against imperialist forces, fighting tooth and nail just to be able to live on their land and govern themselves. When does it all end?
It’s going to be a tough road ahead for the YPG and Kurdish people, but there’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s been a long, hard war for the people here. And if they can avoid more bloodshed, that would be the best case scenario; the hope is that through diplomatic ties to this region, they can negotiate with Turkey and come to a solution,” says Pugh.
Whether diplomacy takes the day or not is anybody’s guess. After a decade of strife, perhaps the major players in the region will finally agree to a ceasefire with some conditions. To quote Öcalan himself, “Violence has become unnecessary. In fact, things have got to the point where violence cannot be afforded.”