I heard the 12.7mm gunshots reverberate across the abandoned buildings throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Shot after shot rang out from the lot outside the abandoned warehouse next to the apartment building I stayed in with the YPG. Eventually, curiosity got the best of me. It did not appear to be one of the YPJ or YPG sniper units doing the shooting, because I was staying with them.
We were right next to what had once been the border between Syria and Iraq. Now, that border was irrelevant. It was part of Rojava now, since the YPG had captured Rabbia from Daash months prior. Making my way from what had been luxury apartment buildings, through some rubble, and to the abandoned industrial park, I was overcome by a creepy vibe, as if I had entered some kind of post-apocalyptic world.
When I got to the shooters, I found about seven of them firing locally manufactured 12.7mm sniper rifles. They were made using DShK barrels and an action and trigger mechanism built in one of Rojava’s weapons factories. I walked up to the group and began shaking their hands. One of them was about six foot five and built like a brick shit house.
When I shook his hand and said hello, he just grunted something and moved along, clearly trying to disguise what he clearly was—a European foreign fighter who had volunteered to fight with the Kurds. He was joined by another European-looking troop who I didn’t get to meet. I was later told that they had been overheard speaking in what sounded like a Scandinavian language.
What struck me as odd was that they were spending the morning and afternoon shooting large-caliber sniper rifles at the side of a warehouse only 50 or so meters away. After taking a few shots to zero the rifle, there was next to no training value in shooting a target at 50 meters. With a 12.7mm rifle, you can’t miss at that range. It was either a total clown show or they were testing the rifles and scopes for reliability.
Another member of the group approached me, an English-speaking Kurd with a mole on one cheek near his eye and shoulder-length black hair. The first thing he told me was “no pictures” as he noticed the camera I had around my neck. After agreeing, he then told me that he and his team were on a “special assignment.” I struggled to remain professional and not laugh. He than asked me to leave, which I also agreed to. He escorted me away, asking about who I was and if I had met Jordan, another foreign volunteer with the YPG.
At the time, I hadn’t met him. But I would soon.
Rojava’s Foreign Fighters
Arriving at a training compound, I walked up to the fourth floor of one of the buildings where I was told I could find American and other foreign fighters. Knocking on some doors, I quickly found the three foreigners I was looking for. All were very polite and welcomed me inside. They offered me the ultra-light cigarettes that are as ubiquitous as the AK-47 in Rojava. We all joked that we would die from lung cancer before Daash ever got the chance to shoot us.
The three foreign fighters were all from Western countries and all claimed previous military experience. I agreed not to take pictures of them or reveal their identities. This was a serious request, as the Daash have been putting bounties on people’s heads. Apparently, they have a list of 17 names of YPG people they would like to kill. One YPG commander I met already had an assassination attempt against him in Rojava.
The three foreign fighters told me some of their stories. One had been trying to go and fight in Ukraine before deciding to join up with YPG. He and one of the other foreigners had come to Rojava the same way I had—via the underground railroad. The third fighter actually crossed over from Turkey and had a hair-raising experience in the process. As it turns out, ISIS is buying foreigners who attempt to come to Rojava and join the fight.
This foreign fighter, who I will call “Sam,” was on a bus heading for the border of Turkey and Syria to go join up with YPG. As the bus was driving along, one of the passengers suddenly bolted out at one of the stops and ran for it. Sam was, of course, suspicious of what was going on around him at this point. As the bus neared the checkpoint, he saw a group of guys waiting for him. They wore military uniforms, but the vehicles they had were civilian—not Turkish military or police.
Sam wisely made the bus driver stop before the checkpoint and made a run for it himself. Eventually, a YPG contact was able to meet up with him and send him in the right direction.
A YPG commander told me that ISIS does this regularly and sees it as a way to capture more Western, especially American, hostages. The YPG commander talks to ISIS all the time on the radio or on cellphones they have captured from dead fighters. ISIS already has a bounty on the commander’s head, but he has also asked them over the phone what they would do if they captured him. Asking if he would be beheaded, an ISIS leader stated, “Maybe, but not right away.” First, they would put him in a location with good Internet access where he would be forced to lure in more Western volunteers who would be quickly captured by ISIS at the border.
“Oh, okay,” the YPG commander said to the ISIS commander over the phone. “How are your boys in Palestine? I hope they are dying well.”
Think of all the propaganda beheading videos ISIS has made of Western journalists and aid workers thus far. By baiting more Westerners into this trap, they could have an unlimited number of hostages. The YPG commander I spoke to had no idea how many Americans had been captured using this technique so far.
The Lions of Rojava
“Sorry, can’t tell you more until you get vetted,” a former U.S. Marine said as he strutted in front of me in a YPG compound. He wore a bandanna and sunglasses and proceeded to tell me pretty much everything, anyway. This is the problem with the “Lions of Rojava,” as they call themselves on Facebook. The foreign fighters stress OPSEC and PERSEC when you meet them in person. They don’t want to talk about operational matters (initially at least) and don’t want their pictures taken. There are good reasons for this but then they post pictures and other revealing information on their Facebook page.
The frontman for the Lions of Rojava is Jordan Matson. When I met Jordan and the former Marine, they first thought I was there to fight or help train troops. I had to quickly explain that I was there as a writer for SOFREP and would be heading home soon. Thankfully, one of the British foreign fighters recognized me from some of my previous work, which I think dispelled any idea that I had some other motive for being there.
Although the former Marine needed to dial it down a notch or two, I found that the Lions of Rojava mostly had their heads and hearts in the right place. They traveled to Rojava to help fight Daash. Even though they apparently don’t share the same socialist ideology as the YPG, they are still sympathetic toward their fight for freedom. Jordan shared with me a sentiment that I and many other U.S. Army veterans share—that if ISIS wins this war, it means that everything our friends fought and died for means nothing. If the Daash win, then everything I did with my teammates in Tal Afar and Mosul was a waste.
The foreign volunteers did not appear to be socialists, but they are ideological in their own way. When it comes to Daash and the fight for freedom, the goals of the YPG and the foreign fighters align quite well. Contrary to what the press has reported, the foreign fighters with the YPG are not mercenaries. They traveled to Rojava and signed up because they believe in the fight. Additionally, they claimed to me that they don’t receive any pay. They are volunteers in the strictest sense of the word. Normally, YPG fighters receive about $250 dollars a month, but these foreign fighters are not even drawing that.
I also met two British foreigners who had joined the fight. They both seemed like stand-up guys to me and both wanted to pass on their training and combat experience to the YPG fighters. They both expressed some frustration in how difficult a process that was, but both also understood that virtue of patience and that they needed some time to fully understand the culture of the people they were now working with.
The “Lions of Rojava” also told me that their goal was to set up an English-speaking unit of Western fighters. This would make for easier command and control as opposed to having the Westerners dolled out in ones and twos to Kurdish units (called tabors) where they would be outsiders who don’t speak the language of their teammates.
Meanwhile, Jordan is recruiting more Western fighters to YPG with his Lions of Rojava Facebook page. Suffice it to say, I expected the foreign fighters in Rojava to be a bunch of ex-Army burnouts and losers. I was actually surprised to find some good guys who were taking their time to learn the nuances and language of the culture they’ve found themselves in. They understood that their endeavor should have more in common with Lawrence of Arabia and less in common with Rambo.
The Lions also have their issues though. In addition to some of them dressing like OPFOR role players in Robin Sage, there was one foreign volunteer who reportedly showed up and told his commander he wanted a meeting with a General and that all he needed was, “Beer and bitches.” In a culture that values equality and respect, this is a pretty quick way to end up getting killed.
A Look Back
The concept of foreign volunteers participating in overseas efforts of national liberation is nothing new. These foreigners drift to these war zones for reasons as varied as their own personal backgrounds. One American foreign fighter I traveled across the border from Kurdistan to Rojava with claimed he wanted to see some action before he got too old. He was already pushing 70. Another foreign volunteer I was told of but never met had actually been a manager at a laser tag arena before he joined YPG. No shortage of jokes arise from his background as you can imagine, but according to a very hardcore YPG commander I met, this foreign fighter was good to go in combat.
When it comes to the volunteer soldiers who show up at these conflicts, you get the good, the bad, and the ugly. Bob Brown championed the cause of Rhodesia’s fight against communism in the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine in the late 1970s. One American friend who served in the Selous Scouts during that war told me that Brown’s de facto recruitment of Americans to go serve in Rhodesia was both a blessing and a curse. Rhodesia got some quality soldiers because of Brown’s efforts, but they also got their fair share of losers and psychos who had to be sent packing.
Today, the Lions of Rojava Facebook page is recruiting foreigners into YPG the way Bob Brown used Soldier of Fortune to recruit Americans to join the Rhodesian military.
On the negative side, you can end up with people like Costas Georgiou, aka “Colonel Callan,” who served in FNLA during the conflict in Angola in the mid-1970s. Costas was an insane, if ambitious, psychopath who resorted to executing his own men in an effort to motivate the others under his command. His criminal actions culminated in the execution of 14 British mercenaries, most of them blue-collar types thinking they were coming to be truck drivers rather than riflemen.
But foreign volunteers can also make a positive contribution to the war effort. Also serving in the Angolan conflict with FNLA was George Washington Bacon, whose biography has been extensively covered here on SOFREP. Bacon served in MACV-SOG in Vietnam, then worked as a CIA paramilitary contractor in Laos, before finally making his way over to Angola to continue to fight communism.
While Bacon was killed when his vehicle ran into an enemy convoy, Costas was put on trial and executed in Angola for the crimes he committed.
A more recent volunteer freedom fighter is Matthew VanDyke, who helped the Libyan rebels battle Gaddafi’s forces and liberate the country during the 2011 civil war. During a recon mission, VanDyke was knocked unconscious and imprisoned in solitary confinement until friendly forces freed him from the prison. SOFREP also conducted an in-depth interview with him.
One of the major drawbacks of the Lions of Rojava (from my point of view) is that they have failed to appropriately handle their public relations. They play the double-edged game of social media, needing it to help recruit foreigners to the YPG, but not fully aware of the second- and third-order effects that this could have. One of those effects is attracting lunatics to the cause, like Bob Brown inadvertently did with Rhodesia. Another is that the tabloid media will get ahold of your pictures, blast them over the airwaves, and brand you a mercenary.
All of the foreign fighters I met asked not to be photographed or have their identifying information made public. I agreed to this arrangement, knowing that by identifying them I would also be painting a bullseye on the back of their heads. Several days later, I had left the YPG base and was sitting in a refugee camp in Dohuk. The Yezidi refugees had a television on, tuned to an Arab news channel.
The news anchor was doing a story of Western “mercenaries” fighting with the YPG. The story included the pictures and names of the British volunteers I had met just a day before. So much for confidentiality. The Lions of Rojava Facebook page had posted their pictures. From there, it didn’t take long for the reporters to start connecting the faces to the individual Facebook accounts, or at least I figure that is what they did.
As to the question of them being “mercenaries,” my answer to this is a clear “No.” Being a mercenary implies that you go to fight on any side for nothing more than cold, hard cash, without any ideological motivation. The foreign fighters I met were committed to helping the Kurds in their fight for freedom against an enemy they regard as evil. Furthermore, the volunteers I met were just that; they received no pay aside from room and board.
These Western volunteers are not the first foreigners who had to be integrated into the Kurdish order of battle—far from it, in fact. The first foreigners to be integrated with PKK, YPG, and YPJ fighters in Rojava were actually several hundred Turkish communists. While no one trusted them at first, they did eventually gain not just trust, but admiration from the Kurds. Unfortunately, almost all of the Turkish communist fighters are now dead. The war grinds through human souls faster than they can be replaced.
A private conversation with one of the Kurds was fairly illuminating when it came to the issue of foreign fighters in the YPG. While the foreign volunteers would like to create an English-speaking unit, the YPG has other plans. Right now they are keeping the foreigners in headquarters areas, or in relatively safe parts of the front lines where they are unlikely to be attacked. While the Lions of Rojava think they are vetting newcomers, it is actually the YPG that is vetting them. They’ll be kept in limbo until the YPG figures out who they can trust. Once they separate the wheat from the chaff, they will then deploy the foreigners in three-man teams with Kurdish units.
The foreigners want to impart their Western combat training and experience upon the Kurds. Meanwhile, the Kurds feel it is important to impart their culture and ideology on the foreigners. The Kurds will never force their ideology on anyone, but as good socialists, they feel that the foreigners will eventually come around and join their ideological cause as well. Combat isn’t everything to the YPG. While the Kurds know that the foreigners are very different, they feel that everyone follows their own path towards finding themselves and the movement.
Ultimately, when you look at the contribution of foreign volunteers, their service is appreciated but insignificant. In no way do I say this to be insulting or disparaging to the volunteer fighters. They made a sacrifice by traveling to Rojava and pledging their lives to the cause of freedom. However, the war will ultimately be won or lost by the people of Rojava. The ultimate sacrifice is the one made by the thousands of Kurds who have laid down their lives against the army of darkness called Daash.
Like the Americans who served in the Rhodesian military, their cause was just, but their contribution amounted to little tangible effect on the battlefield. Keeping in mind that the real heroes of Rojava are the YPG and YPJ fighters, the foreign volunteers now have an uphill battle of their own to fight. Their challenge is to transmit any military training and experience they may have to Kurdish units actively engaged in combat, and in some cases, suffering from exhaustion.
In order to do this, the foreigners will have to learn the Kurdish language and culture. They will then have to use that culture as the transmission medium to impart this military knowledge. In the process of this, the Kurdish fighters will become a little bit like them. What the foreigners don’t yet realize is that the Kurds will use their military training as an opportunity to teach them something about themselves.
As this military and social exchange takes place, the foreigners will also become more Kurdish in nature.