The war in Syria is approaching its sixth anniversary.
The biggest active war in the world has pulled in the combined forces of America, Europe and Russia, cost the lives of nearly half a million people and exacerbated a refugee crisis the likes of which has not been seen for generations.
At present, the country is split between four main protagonists; the Assad government, a loose collection of rebel groups, ISIL and the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG (People’s Protection Units).
The latter, having managed to halt the seemingly endless advance of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL) at the battle of Kobane in 2015, have proved to be the most effective fighting force on the ground.
The YPG are not like the other warring factions in Syria: situated in the North East of Syria, they call their land Rojava (meaning ‘west’ or ‘sunset’ in Kurdish).
In Rojava, the Kurds have fought to liberate their homeland from Daesh after the Syrian army abandoned the region to the terrorists in 2014.
In their wake they have begun to forge an autonomous and democratic homeland that now acts as a place of relative sanctuary amidst the chaos that has engulfed the rest of the country.
The YPG have adopted a form of socialism known as Democratic Confederalism – the policy runs on decentralised power, meaning most decisions are made by bodies such as village assemblies and are taken up to higher bodies if needs be.
The YPG also prides itself on having an exceptional level of race and gender equality – the most famous example of this is the YPJ (women’s protection units) who fight alongside their male comrades on equal terms.
Over the last 18 months, this ideology and the opportunity to fight against the tyranny of Daesh has encouraged hundreds of western volunteers to make the journey to Rojava and join the YPG.
Salahattîn Deniz is one of those volunteers. A British national, he asked us to use his Kurdish nom de guerre for his own safety.
Salahattîn has no obvious connection to Syria.
He is in his mid 20’s, atheist and has no ancestral links to the middle east at all. He has a family and an active social life in the UK with a wide group of friends.
He appears to be just an ordinary man and does not come across as a fighter; he does not have an aggressive temperament and does not have the type of physique you would commonly associate with a soldier or fighting man.
Despite this, Salahattîn still believed that it was necessary to make the 3000 mile journey to help others in their struggle for freedom.
“It’s something that I wanted to do for years… I was following what was going on in Syria then I found out about the YPG and looked into what they were about… I’m a socialist so naturally I supported their ideologies and began to follow them more closely”
At the time Salahattîn was in his second year of university. For a while, commitments in the UK put him off going, but eventually he decided to defer his studies and make the journey to Syria.
“It got to the point where I felt like I was just talking about history while history is being made”
“I still enjoyed my subject and everything, but it got to the point where I felt like I was just talking about history while history is being made. Soon enough it will all be over and I will have done nothing.”
Western volunteers commonly have to apply for permission to join the group through the YPG run Facebook page ‘Lions of Rojava’.
“I wrote to them and told them a bit about myself, I told them what I study and explained that I understand and support their ideology and I told them what I thought I could offer them. They get a lot of people that just write in and tell them ‘I hate ISIS, I wanna kill ISIS’ and this isn’t what they want,” he told Artefact.
The YPG have had problems with some foreign volunteers in the past and have even had to ask them to leave. Now they are more selective about who they accept, not only because of people who are ignorant of the ideology, but also because of the threat posed by enemy sympathisers.
“I had to be a bit persistent, but after a few messages I got a reply along the lines of ‘Ah, you are most welcome!’ I was then put in touch with a guy who gave me instructions on what to do next.”
Salahattîn was told to fly to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan on a particular flight on a particular day. He flew via Turkey and spent a week in Istanbul before travelling on.
“Turkey have their own conflict with their Kurdish population and they consider the YPG a terrorist organisation. I figured that my chances of getting into Turkey after would be pretty slim so I had to make the most of the opportunity while I still had the chance.”
When he arrived in Sulaymaniyah, he was picked up by a middle man who took him to a local safe house where they confiscated his mobile phone and other devices. He was told to sit tight and not stray too far from the safe house.
He spent four days there, during this time several other volunteers from around the world came and went, including the American volunteer Jordan Matson, who was one of the first western volunteers to head to Rojava and was returning for a new tour.
“The locals in Iraq were very friendly, I got the impression that they all know why you’re there. Everyone wants to shake your hand and in the shops everyone wants to give you a discount,” he says.
“But there was always the thought in the back of my mind that this could all be a scam. What with going into a country through cloak and dagger methods, I did wonder if everything was legit. There was one American with us who was paranoid literally until we got into Rojava that at some point they were going to pull over the car and say ‘Right, now we’re gonna sell your organs!’ and at one point he actually said this to our driver who spent the next ten minutes laughing at him.”
Crossing the border from Iraqi Kurdistan to Rojava is not as easy as it might sound. Despite sharing a common enemy in Daesh, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities do not share the same ideologies as their counterparts in Syria and view the revolution in Rojava with suspicion.
“In the past, they have stopped supplies getting through and it depends on how they feel on that particular week how much gets through. Getting people through can be especially difficult, so it’s easier to just smuggle you across,” Salahattîn told us.
The smuggling process involved driving for miles through the desert, trekking along a large trench that marks the border line, crossing the river Tigris and sneaking past the numerous security patrols.
“When we were crossing the river there were so many of us we had to take two trips. We were waiting in the long grass when we heard a Peshmerga patrol coming with a dog. We could hear them getting closer and closer and everyone went quiet, we could see the soldiers helmets over the grass,” he said.
“As they got nearer, the dog started barking really loudly, our armed escort was getting ready for action when the patrol just carried on past us… We could hear them getting quieter and quieter and then one of our guides muttered ‘stupid dog’ and it was over.”
When they finally got into Rojava, Salahattîn and the other foreigners were passed on to a new escort and taken to the YPG academy.
“The academy was set up for the foreign volunteers. You spend about a month there and they give you a basic grounding in Kurdish, learn about the revolution and its ideologies, learn about local history and receive some very basic military training.
“At first the YPG had trouble with western volunteers coming over and not fully understanding what it was all about. One American volunteer that left the group later told the press he left because they were just ‘a bunch of damn reds’.
“The academy gives these people time to understand the culture and what’s going on there and as a result these people feel more included and what could’ve been quite reactionary people can find that after the academy they can fit in a lot better.”
Salahattîn was at the academy with 16 other foreigners, including people from Britain, America, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Iran.
“You get a lot of ex-military volunteers but also a lot of civilians. I think the largest group are German communists. They estimated that there are about 130 Germans in Rojava, before I went I didn’t even think there would be 130 foreigners,” he said.
The academy also aims to educate locals who may have had little or no education prior to the revolution. The people in these classes can range from 18 year old kids to people in their 30’s, but it is all part of the way the YPG want to conduct their revolution.
“They fully understand that to have a democratic society you have to have educated citizens. When they’re not fighting, YPG units can be given classes to attend. This means that instead of doing nothing they’re learning about philosophy and sociology and if a foreigner can understand these things as well, then everyone is more on the same page.”
Teaching people about local cultural norms is also very important: the YPG put gender equality at the very forefront of their policy and this can lead to problems with foreigners.
“When someone joins the YPG or YPJ they’re then forbidden from having relationships. There have been a few occasions where someone, normally a foreigner, has made an advance on a YPJ member. This happened once when I was there and the YPJ don’t tolerate this at all.”
The YPG have their own way of serving out justice. It is 100 per cent democratic and punishment is decided once every member of the relevant unit agrees.
“When the foreigner tried it on with the YPJ member, her and a few of the other fighters wanted to shoot him. Luckily this is more an example of their dark sense of humour than of what actually happens.
“In the end it was decided that the man’s punishment should be to stand there and say nothing while the YPJ ‘explained’ why what he did was wrong. This involved a lot of insults and lasted for about six hours.
“Another example was a guy who got to choose between not speaking for three days or going without tea and cigarettes for three days; over there tea and cigarettes are life, so that’s quite a big deal!”
When they think you are ready to leave the academy, you are given a Kurdish name, a weapon and assigned to a role.
“You can suggest where you would like to go and what you would like to do, but it’s basically where they send you, if you have a specific skill they’ll send you somewhere accordingly.
“But for me, I’m not the strongest guy, more of my skills are information and language based, so I offered to help with things like western facing propaganda.
“They then decided to send me off to Kobane to further my Kurdish and after a while I sort of become by default a translator for other foreign fighters.”
After around three months Salahattîn was attached to a mobile fighting group. He was still effectively a translator but was armed and had stated that he was willing to fight if needed.
“There are practical limits to the amount of training they can give you, we have some shooting practise and some tactical training in the sense that sometimes we’d be out jogging and the instructor would fire some shots in the air and we’d all have to hit the ground and we would have to help out with guard duty but that was more or less it.”
Due to opposition from Turkey (a NATO member) the YPG have had difficulty obtaining high quality weapons, with a large percentage of their arsenal still coming through the black market.
“I had an old Serbian Kalashnikov from the academy but I gave that to another British volunteer halfway through and three weeks later some American special forces gave me a new one.”
There are several hundred US and other coalition special forces deployed on the ground in Rojava to assist with training and some basic combat support. The exact number of personnel is undisclosed.
“I went to an area where the special forces were training the YPG. I never asked them who they were because one, I knew they wouldn’t answer and two, because I didn’t want to know.
“One Canadian guy I was with was asking them what flavour of special forces they were and the only response he could get out of them was “spicy”. They’re normally in civilian clothing and they carry themselves very professionally. They’re clearly the best of the best.”
Despite being armed and being attached to a fighting unit, Salahattîn never had to fire his weapon in anger.
“The way I put it is I saw action, but I never took part. What normally happened was I was in a position that got attacked and I’d just have to shout to someone who was on a better weapon to deal with it and tell them where Daesh were, I only had a Kalashnikov while the man next to me might have a sniper rifle or a machine gun that could deal with it better.”
“The first time I got attacked I was in a compound that was hit with suicide bombers, armoured cars, snipers, rocket propelled grenades, all the craziest stuff.
“While that was all going on I was manning a section of wall where literally nothing happened, I was looking out across the no man’s land and there was nothing, It seems crazy but it happens.”
“You get over the fear of a firefight quickly. The first time you’re nervous and for the first 30 seconds everything’s moving too fast. But then you realise that you’re being shot at and being scared isn’t going to help. You have a job to do and the best thing you can do is just do it.
“The second time you’re shot at you’re still nervous but over time it becomes normal. It got to the stage where we would be playing volleyball and bullets would be whizzing above us and we’d just carry on.
“Another time I was on a roof during a battle while the fighting was raging a few streets away and me and this other guy were on the roof and all I could think about was how bored I was,” Salahattîn said.
“The boredom in war is real. For 90 per cent of the time you are doing nothing. You’re sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking tea or you’re guarding some building somewhere and there’s nothing going on at all. Fighting only happens very occasionally.”
Since Kobane, Daesh has lost most of its experienced fighters. Salahattîn says that what’s left are mostly local sympathisers or newbies.
“The effectiveness of their tactics varies. I was in one village where they would fire mortars at us every hour or so and after several days they had only managed to hit the entire village once. It definitely makes them less scary when you see that.”
Coalition air support means that Daesh’s ability to make advances is very limited. Their main strength now lies in urban fighting, they recently put up a fierce fight in the town of Manbij which cost the lives of an estimated 300 YPG soldiers. The reports about the brutality of their tactics coming out of other areas are confirmed by Salahattîn.
“I saw them shoot at me from behind human shields. A guy fired at me and then used a family for cover so our sniper wouldn’t shoot at him. Another time it looked like they were keeping families in buildings around a position we knew they were firing mortars at us from, we had to fire warning shots at the civilians to get them to scatter before the American planes came and blew everything up.”
“This is what surprised me most when I was actually there, just how much everyone wants to be free from these people.”
“For me, this shows the difference between us and them. When the YPG move into a village and that village then becomes the frontline, all the civilians there have to leave.
“When Daesh occupy a village, they keep as many of the locals there as possible, but then as soon as the fighting starts those civilians just leg it for the YPG lines, luckily most of the time Daesh are too busy shooting at us to bother shoot at them.”
Stories of ethnic tension between the advancing Kurdish forces and local Arab populations have begun to surface in Western media. While Salahattîn does not insist that incidents have not happened, he is keen to stress that everyone is happy to be liberated from Daesh.
“I have heard of some incidences where a house or small hamlet has to be blown up because Daesh has rigged it all with IED’s and it is the safest solution. Obviously this pisses of the locals who might then blame the YPG,” Salahattîn admitted.
“But when we advance into an area, the joy is real. People hate Daesh. When we advance into a town, all the civilians come out waving and the women pull off their black burkas and underneath they’re wearing their beautiful bright coloured hijab’s, people are shaking your hand and offering to cook you dinner, all the children are giving you the peace sign and playing with you.
“Girls see members of the YPJ and it just blows their mind, suddenly all that was impossible seems possible. Seeing It makes everything worth it,” Salahattîn told us with a smile on his face.
“Some of the YPG’s best intelligence comes from civilians in Daesh controlled areas. In one situation we had moved into a new village and a guy in the next village noticed that the YPG had moved in, called his friend in the YPG and told him ‘I can see you’re in the next village, if you come here now all the Daesh fighters are asleep and they’re in one house, if you get here quickly you can surprise them!’ Lo and behold we moved in, captured three prisoners and killed three other fighters.”
“This is what surprised me most when I was actually there, just how much everyone wants to be free from these people.”
However, Salahattîn does admit that this is a war and there has never been a side in war that has been completely blameless.
“From what I know, the YPG have arrested three of their own guys for abusing civilians. It is not in the YPG’s mantra to take part in ethnic cleansing and they certainly do not advocate. If you are caught doing anything wrong you would definitely be punished but obviously it is impossible to catch everything.”
After two years of bitter fighting, the YPG now have one eye on the end of the war.
Unfortunately, the YPG’s progressed has alarmed neighbouring Turkey. All of Rojava’s north borders Turkey and in August of 2016, the Turkish army launched an offensive in northern Syria with the goal of installing pro-Turkish rebels along a stretch of border.
While doing this, the Turks have made no secret of regularly bombing and shelling YPG positions, creating a messy situation for the west and NATO where our allies are fighting our allies while both are fighting our enemy.
“After the war, the YPG’s biggest fear is not the Assad regime, but Turkey. They fear that when Daesh is gone, the west will lose interest and the protection from Turkey will stop. Do you really think President Trump is going to care about a bunch of socialist muslims in the Middle East?”
“This is one of the reasons the YPG take so many foreign volunteer. If people from Europe and America can go there and see the society they are trying to build then they can go home and promote the ideas in the west.
“Let’s be honest, everyone in the west just thinks it’s another bunch of ragheads in the Middle East shooting and killing each other, but it’s not.
“They are genuinely fighting for democracy and all they want is to live in a society with freedom and equality and they see people like us as their best chance of being able to keep that when the war is over,” Salahattîn said.
Unfortunately, it was getting caught up in a Turkish bombing that convinced Salahattîn that it was time to come home.
“I was basically the only one who didn’t need medical attention. I was the only one who always wore a helmet and it saved my life. I was on guard duty and the bomb went off as soon as I clocked on, the explosion threw me against a wall but I was able to get straight up after.
“I realised later that I was dizzy but at the time the adrenaline just kicked in. All around me ammunition and grenades were exploding because of the fire and a water tank that Daesh had spiked with petrol went up, shooting 20 foot flames into the air. The planes hit several times, but luckily I escaped relatively unharmed.”
Salahattîn spent the night pulling his comrades from the rubble while making sure Daesh didn’t seize the opportunity to strike and also protecting the local commander who had survived the attack.
Most of his comrades were wounded, including British volunteer Ryan Lock, and some had been killed.
“I was in the hospital the next day later and I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the person looking back at me. I had just been identifying the bodies of some of my friends and I thought my time was up.
“I had been there for six months at this point, I spoke to my commander and he agreed that maybe now was a good time to call it a day.”
Salahattîn then began the process of returning to the UK.
“The whole thing took around two weeks. You get moved along place by place, avoiding minefields and things like that and then you stop and wait at places etc. Then when the moon’s right and the winds right and the YPG decide it’s the right time, you cross the border back into Iraq.”
Despite helping our allies in their fight against a listed terrorist group, Salahattîn was arrested upon returning to the UK.
To his surprise he was charged with ‘suspicion of commission, preparation or assisting terrorist acts’, he had his laptop and mobile phones confiscated and was placed on bail for three months until the police decide whether to drop the charges.
Salahattîn later told me that after being back in the UK for around six weeks, things were starting to feel normal again, but he was still finding certain parts of life at home hard to readjust to.
The process of readjustment was also not being helped due to the terms of his police bail. Salahattîn is not permitted to leave the town where he was living before he left, which is 130 miles away from his family and closest friends, meaning he hasn’t seen them since the first week he got back.
Despite this and despite all that happened, Salahattîn admits he would one day like to return to Rojava.
“Ideally during peacetime; the emotional and mental relationship with a place and a situation like that is a very strange one and there is a part of me that misses a lot of the hardship and the people and the places. I would love to be able to give up everything else to go and help their revolution and I’m glad that I was a small part of it.”
Since leaving Rojava, many of the other volunteers that Salahattîn fought alongside have since returned to their homes and in some cases have lost their lives for the revolution.
These included British volunteer Ryan Lock and Canadian Nazzareno Tassone, who were both killed fighting alongside each other during a push into Daesh territory on December 21, 2016.
“I knew it would have been that way,” Salahattîn told us, but as the Kurds say, ‘martyrs never die’.
The YPG have come a long way since Kobane. They now have one eye on Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital. When that battle is won, the war, and Daesh, will effectively be over.
But the Rojava revolution will not be over when the last shot is fired. When the fighting stops, the people of Rojava then have to try and rebuild in the wake of a war that has left thousands of people dead and cities in ruins.
Then they have to fulfil their vision of the society they want to build. The Kurds are not fighting for the Kurds; they are fighting for an ideology and it is an ideology that places inherent good at its heart.
“I saw Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Atheists, Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, men and women all fighting together and all trying to build a better society that all of them can share and they’re actually doing it.”
This is where people like us are needed. When more people realise what this revolution is about, the better chance it has of succeeding and a better chance the people of Rojava have of living their lives in peace.
Featured image by Kurdishstruggle via Flickr CC