Britain's Confusing Kurdish Policy Is Screwing Anti-ISIS Fighters
It's perfectly simple: they're fighting ISIS, who we hate, with the YPG, which is linked to the PKK, who Turkey – who we're selling weapons to – hates.
A young YPG fighter (Photo by Henry Langston)
The complex diplomatic fuckery of the British government when it comes to Kurds fighting for their independence is putting people who have travelled to fight against ISIS in a confusing legal situation.
The unforgiving mountain ranges bridging the nations of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran are home to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a group the West views as a dangerous terrorist organisation. In the towns and villages dotted through the harsh terrain hugging the Turkish border in Syria is the PKK's sister organisation, the YPG, a group which is not viewed by most Western governments as terrorist, and which is fighting Isis with the help of coalition air strikes.
Both the PKK and YPG follow the same ideology of their leader Abdullah Ocalan, a peasant from Turkey who started an armed movement against the Turkish state in 1978. The YPG now control large swathes of land in Northern Syria and aim to create an autonomous area within the country, governed by their political branch, the PYD. The YPG is autonomous from the PKK, but it is closely connected to the guerrillas. The group rely on their logistic networks and experienced fighters. So: two organisations, one labelled terrorist and the other not, despite being inextricably linked.
This confusing narrative means British people who travel to join the YPG could end up in prison on terrorism charges, depending on whether or not the UK wants to acknowledge the links between the PKK and YPG – and these decisions seem to be arbitrary and make little sense.
British fighter Josh Walker is awaiting a trial under the UK's anti-terror laws after fighting with the YPG. Meanwhile, some other British fighters I've spoken to get slaps on the back from MI5 when they return to Britain, who tell them they learn about the YPG through VICE documentaries and comment on their "balls".
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In 2015 a steady stream of young Brits, ranging from ex-military to anarchists, bought tickets to Iraqi Kurdistan after contacting Facebook pages run by YPG. Their goal was to join the Kurds in Syria in their fight against ISIS, and to help in what they saw as a secular movement fighting against Islamofascism. As one Australian fighter put it: "Here were these people talking to us in a language we understood as young people, our government just couldn't give a shit."
That fighter can't be named as his government place those who fight for and against ISIS on an equal setting. In Australia, it is a terrorist offence to join the YPG, or even travel to the areas they operate in.
While most British fighters have travelled to and from Syria without problems, Shilan Ozcelik, a 17-year-old British Kurd, was imprisoned in 2015 for two years for trying to fly to the Middle East from London. British authorities connected her to the PKK. Many claim Ozcelik was simply the wrong ethnicity. She went to prison, despite the fact that every foreign fighter in Syria is likely to spend some time with the PKK.
What's really going on here is some pretty crass political whitewashing. Turkey is currently involved in a war with the PKK. Turkey is an important member of Nato, and is spending a lot of money buying fighter jets from Britain, so Britain doesn't want to piss Turkey off. If the UK government was to stop viewing the PKK as a terrorist organisation, it might have to make louder noises demanding that Erdogan respects human rights as he uses potentially British-made arms against his own people.
Western governments also want to rid the Middle East of ISIS, and the Kurds are very good at fighting jihadis. In order to paper over these inconsistencies, fraternal links between the two organisations are simply ignored. YPG = Good. PKK = Bad.
Former British soldier and ex-YPG fighter Joe Robinson has been arrested and charged with terrorism by the Turkish government after traveling there on holiday. Joe's father Andrew says the British government has been unable to visit his son since his arrest on the 22nd of July in the holiday town of Didim.
"That first week he got arrested I tried to get in touch with the consulate, and about a week later they called asking me if I have any questions," says Andrew. "Joe still hasn't had a consular visit and now they're saying it might be the 11th of September, nearly two months after his arrest. He spends 23 hours a day on his own, and it's upsetting to think of your son like that. I feel that if the US is willing to back the YPG as they fight ISIS, and Turkey are our Nato ally, they shouldn't be treating us like this. We've had no support from the politicians and it seems like they can't do anything."
"The fact is: the YPG is an ally of coalition forces and under British law is not a proscribed terrorist organisation."
If the British government follows Turkey's lead and declares the YPG a terrorist organisation after the battle for ISIS stronghold Raqqa, the future of those who fought ISIS remains uncertain.
Chris Scurfield – whose son Kosta died fighting with the YPG in Syria, in 2015 – is critical of the UK government's treatment of those who go to fight ISIS. "It is fair that all fighters are investigated to ensure that they have not been fighting with Daesh," he says. "What I don't find fair is when they are kept on bail for months on end while the police scramble around trying to dig up anything to charge them with. The fact is: the YPG is an ally of coalition forces and under British law is not a proscribed terrorist organisation. None of our foreign fighters have yet been charged with anything, despite police attempts. Before Kosta went over he did extensive research into the legality of what he was doing, and the military investigated him thoroughly. If there had been any legal reason to keep him from joining the YPG, I'm sure they would have. Since they didn't, it's clear that, as things stand, there is no crime in fighting with the YPG."
One man who is particularly worried about his situation is 25-year-old Kevin Benton. After four years with the Royal Regiment of Scotland, he left to join the YPG in Syria, where he is now fighting on the Raqqa front. Benton plans to return to the UK soon and is worried about his status in the fickle world of British foreign policy.
"I am a little bit worried about being arrested, but I know I have done good for the world. If British law thinks differently, shame on them, but I will have to wait and see," he says.
For Brits like Kevin, Josh and Joe, any change in the UK's policy towards the so-called "Kurdish question" will have a direct bearing on their lives. Right now, the British government has no interest in supporting an impoverished mountainous guerrilla group when valuable arms contracts are up for grabs, and it seems that turning a blind eye to the relationship between YPG and PKK is vital in securing the PR coup of removing ISIS from Raqqa.
For those who chose to support the Kurds, their future remains mired in the seesaw of UK policy.