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A Divorced Father-of-Two from Ohio Is Fighting the Islamic State in Syria

Brian Wilson, 43, worked with the sheriff's office in Ohio for 16 years. Now he's on the front lines of Syria battling the Islamic State with Kurdish YPG forces.
Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

While the international community decides if, and how, it should support Syria's Kurds, a few individuals have already made their move. And VICE News went to meet Brian Wilson, an American fighting with the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units).

YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil had warned us that the internationals in his ranks might not be willing to talk. "We are not actively recruiting foreign fighters but you'll find one in Serekaniye. However, I don't know if he'll be eager to speak to the press," Xelil told VICE News from his HQ in Qamishli, a city of 200,000 on the Syrian border with Turkey.


Despite this, we drove 60 miles west to Serekaniye, a town that has witnessed intense clashes between the local Kurdish militia and Islamist groups since 2012.

At the local YPG HQ we got the same message: "You'll have to convince Zagros [Wilson's code name] to sit down for an interview. He should be back from the front in an hour or two."

Three hours later, Wilson finally showed up. He looked visibly tired but agreed to an interview after reassurances that no video footage would be taken.

'I know of at least four other Americans among us but surely many more will be joining us soon.'

"I was born in Ohio 43 years ago. I am divorced and have two children. That's me," Wilson began. He explained that he served in the US Army and also worked for 16 years at the sheriff's office back in Ohio. With this background, there was hardly any need for him to receive YPG military training.

"I haven't even seen their training camps," Wilson admitted, sitting down in an armchair with his assault rifle between his legs. Tea is served as Wilson describes his arrival, a month and a half ago.

"I knew of the Kurds' plight from long ago, and not just that of those in Syria. I had a good network of contacts that helped me to join the YPG," he recalled, before admitting that nobody back home knew about his decision. "My brother kind of knew something, but that's just about it."

When I asked about his motivations, Wilson replied: "These guys are not only fighting ISIS [the Islamic State] but, unlike other armed groups in the region, they also talk about democracy and human rights." The YPG, the American added, is a project, "not just for the local Kurds but also for the Arabs and Christians living in the region."


Meet the Kurdish Suicide Bomber Planning to Attack the Islamic State in Kobane. Read more here.

After the 2011 uprising against the Syrian government, the country's Kurds opted for a neutrality that has forced them into clashes with both government and opposition forces. In July 2012 they took over the areas of northern Syria where they form a majority.

Although just back from the front line, Wilson admitted that he has not yet been involved in direct combat. So far his assignment has been to manage private security for the YPG's high-ranking officers. He hopes to help to run a Facebook page in English in the forthcoming days.

Though Wilson is the second known American to join the YPG after 28-year-old Jordan Matson from Wisconsin, there's apparently no shortage of English speakers in the Kurdish ranks.

"I know of at least four other Americans among us but surely many more will be joining us soon," claimed Wilson. He is hesitant, however, about whether that will be enough to defeat the Islamic State in Kobane: "ISIS is well funded and organized. Air strikes are helpful but we still lack weapons, medicines, and advanced technology, such as explosive detectors or night vision goggles."

Washington continues to supply weapons and equipment to the Kurds in Iraq to help fight the Islamic State, but has still not taken an official position on support for the Kurds in Syria.

However, the recent announcement that Turkey would allow access Peshmerga (the Kurdish Iraqi Army) into the besieged enclave of Kobane poses a significant step, just after the US Army dropped 24 tons of weapons and medicines in the town after nearly five weeks of intense fighting.

Salih Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party and the dominant political force among Syrian Kurds, told VICE News that these moves are "highly significant," adding that the fate of Kobane could bring "deep changes not only to the Kurds in Syria, but for the whole Middle East region."

And Wilson says he has no plans to return back home any time soon. "I will stay as long as they need me," he explained, before getting back to duty.