Learn some basic Kurdish, don’t travel to Syria via Turkey, bring warm socks, and learn about Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
These are some of the tips being shared among potential Western recruits to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that is fighting Islamic State militants in Kobani, Syria.
As more and more stories emerge of young Western volunteers joining or seeking to join its ranks, the YPG is carrying out a recruitment campaign via social media, targeting Western men and women who want to join the fight.
Westerners who express an interest on social media in joining the YPG in Kobani are directed to a special recruitment page on Facebook.
The Facebook page -- whose name, Lions of Rojava, echoes a common name for IS, Lions of Tawhid -- has garnered more than 15,800 “likes.”
The Lions of Rojava page is blatant about its mission:
“JOIN People's Defense Units / YPG/ in Rojava, Syria, SEND TERRORISTS TO HELL and SAVE HUMANITY”
The poster child for the Lions of Rojava (literally so, as his photograph adorns the Facebook page’s banner) is U.S. Army veteran Jordan Matson, who joined the YPG two months ago. One of four Americans known to be fighting for the YPG, Matson is currently in Kobani.
The Lions of Rojava page provides details of other Westerners who have come to Syria to join him, along with motivational messages emphasizing the roles of the YPG and the Peshmerga in “defending the civilized world against barbarism.”
One of them is 29-year-old Swedish national Rahel Qadir, who is quoted as saying that he was motivated to join the YPG after being “affected by a video showing militants of the Islamic State killing innocent children.”
A former soldier in the Swedish Army, Qadir had a message about unity in the region: “All social components in the region should support the Kobani resistance and try to put aside all previous rifts, whether sectarian of partisan,” he said.
Qadir framed the fight against IS in Kobani in terms of a battle between the free world and evil forces. The battle for the town is akin to “defending the civilized world against barbarism,” which the YPG says it can achieve “with some light weapons” because of its “high degree of determination against the extremists.”
U.S. Army veteran Jordan Matson
Qadir is an ethnic Kurd, but not all the Western nationals joining the YPG have a Kurdish background or any connection to the Kurdish national movement.
Among them is a Canadian woman, named on November 11 as 31-year-old Gill Rosenberg, who had lived in Israel and reportedly served in the Israel Defense Forces. The Lions of Rojava published photos of Rosenberg, whom it did not name, however. In some of the photos, Rosenberg is apparently working in a bakery in Syria.
Several people have left comments on the Lions of Rojava page, saying that they, too, would like to join the YPG.
“where do I go to join the kurds army or lions of r. and who do I get a hold of ?” wrote one commenter, whose Facebook account names him as Pat Nolin.
In addition to the Lions of Rojava page, Western supporters of the YPG have used Facebook to share detailed information in English for potential recruits about how to get to Syria and what they should expect when they arrive.
The YPG is a “people’s army driven for social change,” the advice given in one post says, noting that Islamic State “is a threat to that process.”
Wannabe YPG fighters are advised to “get to know the guy who’s face you will see everywhere on flags and badges among the YPG his name is Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK who is currently incarcerated in Turkey since 1998 for leading the struggle there.”
Potential recruits are also advised to learn as much Kurdish as possible (“All American volunteers have so far reported 'language barrier' as being the number one obstacle. Hand signals and smiles will get you so far. A willingness to learn Kurdish will get you further and probably save your life,” the advice reads), to bring warm socks, and to work on their physical fitness.
If just a few months ago the YPG was a little-known foreign militia fighting in a faraway corner of Syria, its stance against Islamic State in Kobani has helped transform it, if not into a household name, then at least into a familiar -- and much lauded -- fighting force. The YPG has become known in the West not only for standing against the onslaught of Islamic State militants but also for its apparently Western outlook.
The YPG and its parent group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have successfully positioned themselves as groups with Western values, groups that promote and value women’s rights (as evidenced by its female fighters dressed in Western-style fatigues), in other words the antithesis of the repressive ideology of Islamic State, which prohibits women from even going outside unless they are accompanied by a male relative.
In sharp contrast to reports that Islamic State is repressing women in the areas under its control, and even has a policy of subjecting Yezidi women to rape and slavery, reports say a local government in a majority Kurdish area recently passed a decree granting women equal rights.
More than this, however, the YPG’s battle against IS has allowed it to spread its messages about Kurdish independence to a Western audience. That this is the case is apparent from the final piece of advice offered to potential YPG fighters on Facebook. If joining the YPG is not for them, the advice says, Westerners can still help the Kurds by expressing solidarity with the Kurdish cause:
“The fight against ISIS is a noble one and the Kurds need our help without a doubt. Think carefully if joining the YPG is the right thing for you or whether you can help out in other ways including donating to Kurdistan Red Crescent or joining an NGO that is currently looking after refugees in Turkey and in areas around Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, express your solidarity with the Kurdish people and write letters to Government demanding that they drop the PKK from the terrorist list and demand rights for Kurds in Turkey including the immediate and unconditional release of [Abdullah] Ocalan."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk