Syrian Kurdistan — or Rojava, as it’s known to the region’s 4 million residents — lies to the north of Syria, along the Turkish border. In 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group affiliated with the left-wing militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), declared Rojava’s autonomy from the Syrian state. Since then, the PYD’s armed wing, known as the YPG (People’s Protection Units), has been waging an all-out war against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, the group has introduced what it describes as a system of “democratic and autonomous” government in the areas it controls.
On November 13, as Paris was struck by an unprecedented series of coordinated terror attacks, IS was suffering heavy defeats in Syria and Iraq. Working with Iraqi Peshmerga forces, the YPG seized control of several IS positions, cutting off the main supply routes to the group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
Last summer, Jacques (not his real name), a French communist in his 20s, gave up everything to join the YPG, take part in the Rojava revolution, and help defeat IS. This week Jacques — nicknamed Sirat by his brothers in arms — granted VICE News an exclusive interview from the Syrian front.
VICE News: Why did you come to Syrian Kurdistan?
Jacques: I came mainly to take part in this revolution. I’ve been a Marxist internationalist revolutionary militant since my teens. It would have been hypocritical to watch what’s going on in Syrian Kurdistan today from afar. The YPG are structuring their territory according to socialist and libertarian ideology, by setting up municipalities in every location they free.
I also came here to help the Kurdish people. They have been martyred and persecuted by all kinds of regimes, discriminated against throughout history, but they have an enormous capacity for resilience. They were able to avoid falling back into the dark ages like other oppressed people and instead, bide their time. Another thing is that their main enemy, Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS] is today the incarnation neo-fascism. My decision [to join] is also the decision of a fervent “antifa” [short for anti-fascist].
How did you make contact with them?
Through the “Lions of Rojava” Facebook group. I contacted them via private message. Then they organized my travel. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I knew they’d try to talk me out of it. I worked for a few months to pay for my travel and to have some money set aside in case I fell on hard times. Then I took a plane to Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and from there I was taken care of. Since the border between Syria and Iraq is closed, I had to dress up as a Peshmerga to join Syrian Kurdistan.
Did you warn your family?
Yes and no. But that isn’t your concern.
Can you describe the training you received?
The training lasts two weeks from the moment the volunteers arrive and it’s very minimal: How to operate a Kalashnikov, physical training and the rudiments of military strategy. After I passed the test, there were several other training sessions. The reason they don’t teach you much in the beginning is because they know that a lot of foreign volunteers won’t be able to handle it and will go home after a few weeks.
How difficult are the conditions?
The living conditions are extremely difficult. Add to this the cultural misunderstandings and the reality of war… But many of those who stay on have strong political motives and believe in the political ambitions of Syrian Kurdistan.
Who are the Westerners who join the YPG?
Those you see in the media are not at all representative: They’re former soldiers turned crusaders or reckless adventurers who pose with guns but in reality tend to hide out. I’ve met some real psychopaths who have a thirst for war and who will shoot at anything and everything.
Their appetite for media coverage is overshadowing the other volunteers that make up the majority of fighters: people who are politically motivated and are here more for the Rojava revolution than for the Islamic State.
Have you met any other French individuals?
I met four: two former legionnaires who are real scum, a young guy who seemed like a drifter and a crusader type. I’m not interested in people like that. Once again, they represent only a minority of volunteers. In my unit there are four Germans, one Italian, and one American, and they’re true comrades. That said, I know there are others, but I haven’t met any.
Is it fair to say it’s an international brigade, like the ones that fought during the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1938?
In a way, yes. There are some very distinct units that bring together people who are part of the communist-internationalist movement, but it’s not on the same scale. If truth be told, Europe’s internationalist political parties have neither the courage nor the will to act, despite flaunting their convictions. They are pounding the pavement in France but are doing absolutely nothing tangible for the Kurdish cause. They would rather look away, perhaps because they are scared of commitment, perhaps out of hypocrisy They are armchair revolutionaries. If they really want to see what a popular uprising looks like, they should come over here and see it firsthand.
What kind of reception did you get from the locals?
We received a warm, welcome, it’s almost embarrassing. People can’t believe that anyone would travel thousands of kilometers to defend the Rojava cause.
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