A newly formed support group for Canadian veterans who want to join Kurdish militias and fight Islamic State (IS) militants says it wants to make sure North Americans are well-informed about what to expect before they go to Syria.
The support group, called the 1st North American Expeditionary Force (1st NAEF), was formed last month in the wake of reports that at least one Canadian citizen had joined the Kurdish militia in Syria and Iraq. The group says its mission is to help Canadians who wish to volunteer by providing advice and practical support.
In a post on its Facebook page on December 3, the group said it was aware of "significant criticisms [of Western veterans traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Kurds] presented by both government and highly respected security experts relating to persons seeking to volunteer to fight [Islamic State] in the Middle East."
Among the dangers faced by Westerners joining Kurdish militia forces are the lack of rapid-response medical care for the wounded and the risk of being targeted by "nefarious entities," the group admitted.
However, the 1st NAEF said that it planned to continue its work to help protect Canadian and American nationals who were heading off to Syria to join the Kurds.
"The 1st NAEF stands to not only protect the innocent peoples suffering under the hands of [Islamic State], but also to protect our fellow country men and women as best we can. We cannot stop people from leaving; what we can do is make sure they are informed and prepared to the best of our abilities," the group wrote.
The assistance that the 1st NAEF says it offers potential volunteers includes "verified contacts" with Kurdish Peshmerga units that accept foreign volunteers, travel advice and help with what to pack, and a support network. The 1st NAEF says that it is not a private military firm or recruitment organization and that it wants to offer additional services, like discounts on airfares and materiel, in the future.
A number of Canadian and American nationals are known to be fighting in Syria with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Peshmerga forces. Among them are American vet Jordan Matson and Canadian vet Dillon Hiller. Hiller, a former Alberta construction worker, is one of about six former Canadian-forces personnel who are thought to have joined the Kurds.
Hiller, who previously fought in Afghanistan with the Canadian forces, features in a December 1 video posted by the 1st NAEF on its Facebook page.
The video is apparently shot on a cellphone and shows a man, identified only as DH, helping to bandage another fighter who appears to have been seriously injured. Armed fighters are seen surrounding the wounded man, and the sound of gunfire is heard in the background.
"That's all I can do for him right now, man.... Tell him he's going to be all right," the man says in a North American accent.
In a short text accompanying the video, DH writes that he is unsure whether he saved the wounded fighter's life but that he was proud of his actions.
"The day I helped Kurdish defense forces liberate --------- from the clutches of evil was the greatest day of my life. I accomplished more good in those 20 hours than the previous 26 years of my life. I dragged a man who had been shot in the face to safety and patched him up, while many others stood around in shock," he wrote.
The 1st NAEF identified the man in the video as Dillon and said it is "sure that the man in the video lived, he is proud to have assisted in the medical response efforts."
Gill Rosenberg, another Canadian citizen who has joined the Kurdish militia forces, hit headlines recently when rumors spread that she had been abducted by IS militants. The rumors were later denied by the Kurds. The Lions of Rojava, another support group for Western volunteers with the Kurdish militias, told RFE/RL on December 3 that Rosenberg was safe and that the rumors of her capture had been started deliberately by IS in an attempt to find out where the woman was located.
"It is only a game so they know her place, we are aware of such schemes!!" Lions Of Rojava said via Skype.
According to Canada's CBC news service, it is not illegal for Canadians to enlist in a foreign military force as long as they do not join a group that the federal government has designated a terrorist entity, and as long as the group is not engaged in hostilities against Canada or its allies.
Canadians fighting with the Kurdish YPG militia could face accusations that they have breached antiterror laws, however. The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which in turn is linked to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Canada considers the PKK a terrorist organization.
Analysts have also warned that Canadians could run into trouble if the Kurdish militias with which they are fighting violate the laws of war.
Canada's chief of defense staff, General Tom Lawson, has also warned that Canadians are not advised to fight in foreign militias.
"I do not encourage Canadians to leave our nation and to head to other nations to get involved with the militaries" of those nations," Lawson said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk