15 May 2017
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Chabkoun is an independent Middle East researcher and writer based in the US.