What Kurdistan's Anti-ISIS Foreign Fighters Think of All the Attention

A Peshmerga soldier takes lead during urban combat maneuvering training Octobert 29, 2015, near Erbil, Iraq. Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense

After two years, they’ve made their mark.

“BREAKING, 200 Iranian revolutionary guards and 150 Hezbollah have entered to the Syrian city of to [sic] Hasakah to help Assad’s regime against US backed Kurdish YPG, they killed many Kurdish civilians.” This message was posted to the Reece Harding News Agency Facebook page on August 19. Harding, an Australian, was killed in June of 2015 fighting against Islamic State in Syria alongside the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the mostly Kurdish group that controls portions of eastern Syria. He is one of hundreds of foreign volunteers who have gone to aid Kurds in Iraq and Syria since ISIS attacked their areas in August 2014.

Sitting in the command tent of General Bahram Arif Yassin last month, Jonathan Rieth, an American, explained his motivations. “You’re sitting watching this stuff unfold, hoping your government will do more. I have a specific skill I know is needed. . . . For me one of the tipping points was a graphic image of a Christian woman kidnapped by Daesh, raped thirty times a day, beaten, mutilated, that didn’t kill her, they took a crucifix and jammed it in her throat . . . that image is frozen in my mind.” Rieth decided that he had to do something, and relocated to the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq to try to help train the peshmerga to be combat medics. On August 14, his assistance played a role in the battle for Khazir when five thousand Kurds attacked ISIS and liberated twelve villages near Gwer, south of Mosul. He wrote on Facebook, “at one point during the day a car bomb went off injuring six peshmerga.” Along with two others, he was able to aid critically injured peshmerga.

The foreign fighters and medical aid volunteers have been the subject of a great deal of media interest, much of it hyperbolic and focusing on the local or national angle, such as reports from Canada or the UK emphasizing the role of one of their own in the war on ISIS. Other reports have focused on the heroic and the exotic; one described former Hollywood actor Michael Enright, who came in 2015, and there is a recent documentary titled “Basic Instinct: Meet the Westerners Hunting Down ISIS Jihadists in Syria.”

Details often seemed too ridiculous to be true, such as the December 9, 2014, claim that “Dutch biker gangs” were going to fight ISIS in Kobani. The Daily Mail doubled down on that, claiming that German biker gangs were joining the Dutch in this counter-jihad. Images showed them distributing aid to Yazidi refugees and shouldering weapons.

What motivated many foreign volunteers was the ISIS genocide against Yazidis that began in August of 2014. They were inspired by the Kurdish resistance in the siege of Kobani in Syria that began in September of that year. Brian Wilson, a divorced father who had served in the U.S. Army, was one of the first to arrive alongside the YPG. “These guys are not only fighting ISIS but, unlike other armed groups in the region, they also talk about democracy and human rights,” he told Vice News in October of 2014. He made it clear he was not just there for the Kurds but also for Christian minorities and Arabs in the region.

Jordan Matson, who was twenty-seven at the time, also went to fight alongside the YPG as Kobani came under siege in September. From Sturtevant, Wisconsin, he travelled through Turkey speaking no Kurdish but eager to join the fight. He had found the YPG through Facebook, he told a local Fox station in February 2016. “I was just done with it. Just done with watching these people die [in Syria and Iraq]. And nothing being done about.” He was one of the early handful, but by the spring of 2015 there were dozens more. Some went back multiple times. Levi Jonathan Shirley, an American, was killed in July after returning for the battle of Manbij. His mother Susan Shirley told CBS that “he had a very big heart. . . . He was so brave to go back the second time, knowing what he was in for. He just really cared about the underdog.”