Small Wars Journal

“Phil-Kurdism” Like Philhellenism? The Role and Impact of the Western Volunteers Alongside Kurds

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 4:58am

“Phil-Kurdism” Like Philhellenism? The Role and Impact of the Western Volunteers Alongside Kurds

Spyridon Plakoudas

Hanna Bohman and Joanna Palani. What do a former model from Canada and a politics student from Denmark have in common? Two things - they both originate from the West and served alongside Kurds in the Syrian Democratic Forces. But they are not the only ones. They represent a fraction of the over 400 volunteers in the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces who participate in the battle against ISIS in northern Syria. A much smaller number of Westerners fights against ISIS alongside the Peshmergas in Iraqi Kurdistan. Let’s have a look first at the Kurdish military formations in Iraq and Syria.

The People’s Protection Units (or YPG) is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (or PYD) – by far the strongest political organization among Syrian Kurds. The PYD has already established three autonomous areas (or Cantons) in northern Syria and eagerly implements a radical version of a socialist democracy owing to the party’s communist background. The Syrian Democratic Forces (or SDF) is an alliance of the YPG with various militant groups of northern Syria (Turkomans, Arabs, Assyrians) that was established in 2015 upon the suggestion of the USA with an obvious anti-ISIS orientation. The USA cooperated with the YPG for the first time during the Siege of Kobani in 2014 and, since then, the YPG and SDF developed into the most trustworthy “boots on the ground” of the US-led international coalition against ISIS. The intensifying co-operation of the USA with the SDF against ISIS only angered Ankara; in fact, Turkey argues that the SDF is just a cover for the YPG (a terrorist group according to Turkish senior officials owing to the militant group’s organic ties with the separatist PKK insurgents in Turkey) to establish a “PKK state” in northern Syria. Meanwhile, the peshmerga (or those “who defy death”) are the military forces of Iraqi Kurds who, unlike their co-brethren in the YPG, are not associated with the PKK. The peshmerga won their fame in the wars against the central government in Bagdad and they now form a 200-000-strong conventional-style military force. Due to the sensitivities of Turkey towards the YPG, the West and the USA (until May 2017) armed only the peshmerga in the fight against ISIS – and this despite repeated objections by Iraq.

In late 2014, just a few months after ISIS captured vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq in a summer blitzkrieg, these volunteers started to rush to the battlefield. But why? The genocide against the Yazidi Kurds and the Siege of Kobani, the so-called “Kurdish Stalingrad”, shocked the public opinion across the West and prompted hundreds of Westerners (and Kurds from Europe and Iran and Turkey) to travel to Syria and Iraq and volunteer to fight against ISIS]. And they did this despite the warnings of the European and Turkish state authorities for possible sanctions upon their return. Their contribution on the battlefield is most likely negligible as the majority of them do not possess any military background. Precisely this inexperience renders their use problematic for Kurdish military commanders – despite the boost in morale for the YPG and Peshmerga by the volunteers’ presence.

However, the number of these volunteers is negligible in comparison to the fighters for ISIS from the West and the rest of the world – even Japan. In fact, over 4,000 jihadists from Western Europe flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight for “jihad”. The vast majority of them are 2nd generation Muslim males from ghettos who are attracted by the apocalyptic cosmotheory and practice of ISIS: for individuals with socio-economic and psychological issues, ISIS offers a sense of purpose and identity. After all, ISIS established a radical egalitarian society where foreigners (even women) could assume senior positions. The promise of adventure and rewards in this life or the other (such as brides) motivated thousands of Muslim (even non-Muslim girls) to join the ranks of ISIS. In contrast to the pro-Kurdish Western volunteers, the would-be jihadists could count on the support of local jihadist networks in Western Europe and the superior propaganda tools of ISIS (especially the internet) to participate in jihad under the black banner of ISIS. But the road to martyrdom may not end necessarily in the Middle East. After the decline of the “Islamic Caliphate” since 2016, some of these jihadists already returned to Western Europe and plotted terrorist attacks. One can fairly assume that the numbers and menace of these jihadists explain why the tales of the would-be Western jihadists used to eclipse the stories of their anti-ISIS counterparts. Only recently did the news headlines about the anti-ISIS “crusaders” multiply.

But why did these Westerners join the Kurds of Syria and Iraq? For the same reasons thousands and thousands of volunteers from all over Europe flocked to Spain in the 1930s and formed the International Brigades to fight Franco’s fascist army: a mixture of romanticism, anarchism and adventurism. The story of the International Brigades is closely associated to the conflict between communism and fascism in Europe and, ergo, the phenomenon of the pro-Kurdish volunteers from the West maybe demonstrates a closer affinity with Philhellenism. But who were the Philhellenes? They were liberal-minded middle-class young males (and sometimes romantic young aristocrats) from Western Europe who were fascinated by Ancient Greece; some of them even participated in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830) since they were inspired by the cause of a new Hellenic statelet in the territories of the idolized Ancient Greece. Although two centuries apart, the motives behind these volunteers’ actions are the same more or less: an abhorrence for the crimes against humanity in the name of jihad, an admiration for the struggle of a stateless and oppressed people (largely ignored by the West) for national liberation, a profound Christian piety and altruism and, last but not least, the yearning for an extra-ordinary adventure in a foreign land or even the quest of identity.

However, the similarities between the Phil-Kurds (literally, “friends of the Kurds”) and Phil-Hellenes stop there. Bestowed with a classical education, the Philhellenes viewed the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire as the true heirs of Ancient Greek Civilization and felt an ethical obligation to free them from the tyrannical Islamic rule of the Sublime Porte. However, the volunteers from the West alongside the Kurds in Syria and Iraq do not share a similar reverence for the glorious deeds of Saladin or other historical Kurdish figures. After all, Kurdistan as an independent entity never existed even in medieval times and only the stillborn Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 envisioned an independent Kurdistan on the basis of Wilson’s idealism. Even the most ideologically-committed segment of these Phil-Kurds, the anarchists from the West, fight to fend off the “jihadism” of ISIS and the “imperialism” of the “neo-colonial powers” in the Middle East – not to lift up a stateless people whose civilization laid the foundations of the West. But the differences do not stop there.

In addition, the Philhellenes were a mass movement of the liberal middle and upper strata of Europe during the Age of Lights: civil society organizations were established in almost every capital of Western Europe and advanced the cause of the separatist Greek insurgents in every way, renowned artists (e.g. the French painter Eugène Delacroix and the English poet Thomas Moore) increased the public’s awareness about the rebellion with their spirited works and even influential politicians (most notably, the British Charles Canning and the French Charles Nicolas Fabvier) strove to convince their governments to support Greek rebels. Even Lord Byron joined the war and died in Greece. This grassroots movement ultimately succeeded in convincing the governments of the European Great Powers to overcome Metternich’s strong opposition and aid the Greek rebels militarily.

No individual of the magnitude of Delacroix or Fabvier has thus far emerged to advance the cause of the Kurds with the exception of a few academics – especially among the neo-conservative think tanks. No 21st century Lord Byron yet set foot in northern Syria and northern Iraq to partake in the armed struggle of the Kurds. The death of Byron (and the following massacre) in the Siege of Messolonghi caused a public outcry in Western Europe and impelled the reluctant Great Powers of Europe to act and address the Greek War of Independence. Of course, the armed intervention of the European Great Powers on the side of the Greek insurgents was owed to a mixture of philanthropism and cold geopolitical calculations. In contrast, the USA and other powers (e.g. Britain) intervened in support of the Kurds in September 2014 before the very first volunteers from the West arrived in northern Syria and Iraq. After all, many of these volunteers even ignored the existence of the Kurds before the ethnic-cleansing by ISIS against Yezidi Kurds. The Philhellenes, on the contrary, represented a far more cohesive grassroots movement which owed its existence to the West’s increasing admiration of Ancient Greece. Philhellenism predated the Greek War of Independence whereas Phil-Kurdism developed after the Syrian Civil War and the struggle of the Kurds for national liberation.

In summary, the Phil-Kurdism is still far away from Phil-Hellenism in terms of origins, influence and modus operandi. This, however, does not necessarily mean that the volunteers from the West have not and will not make a difference. It falls upon the governments of the West to make a real difference – just like they did in 1828 when they burned the mighty Turco-Egyptian fleet off the coast of Greece. The Kurds as a people are on the rise owing to the seismic developments in the Middle East. A few days ago, Iraq’s Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession from Iraq in a referendum strongly opposed by Iraq’s neighbors and allies; and several weeks ago, the Kurds in Rojava (Western Kurdistan or northern Syria) organized their first elections for self-rule. These developments would have been unimaginable just a few years ago; however, the Kurds’ dreams of independence (in Iraq and Syria for the time being) are gradually materializing – all thanks to the support of the USA and, partly, the West. Without support from Washington and other Western capitals, the Kurds would have not achieved so much in the face of an increasing opposition by various state  and non-state actors. And maybe in a few years, independent Kurdistan(s) will be a reality.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Spyridon Plakoudas is an Assistant Professor in Strategy at the American University in the Emirates. His research interests and publications center on Insurgency / Counter-insurgency and the Kurdish Question. His latest publications include: “The Syrian Kurds and the PYD: The Outsider in the Syrian War”, Mediterranean Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2017), pp. 99-116 and "The New PKK: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Turkey" (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2017).