As the peculiar case of Gill Rosenberg shows, it’s not easy to be a freelance fighter in the war against terror — particularly when the forces you’re allied with are also (sometimes) labelled terrorist.
Rosenberg is the 31-year-old Canadian-Israeli who announced last month that she had travelled to Syrian to join Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants there.
Her exact whereabouts have become a mystery. A website associated with the Islamic State says she has been captured by militants. The Kurds say she’s hasn’t. Someone (it’s not clear who) has posted comments on her Facebook page saying she’s fine.
What is clear, however, is that the trained pilot and former Israeli soldier has entered the murky world of Kurdish politics, where almost everyone involved has been accused, at one point or another, of terrorism.
Rosenberg is one of several Westerners recruited by the People’s Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials as the YPG. It’s a militia with close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, an organization deemed terrorist by Canada, the United States, Turkey and other NATO countries.
When I say close, I mean close. The Wall Street Journal reports that a large poster of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan graces the wall of militia headquarters in northern Syria. The YPG’s official slogan is, “There’s no life without the leader (Ocalan).”
Ocalan has been in jail in Turkey since he was captured, with the help of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in 1999. That came after a long and dirty war over Kurdish autonomy in which thousands died.
Like Ocalan’s PKK, the YPG adheres to a somewhat idiosyncratic ideology cobbled together from Marxism, feminism, Kurdish nationalism and militant secularism.
As Ocalan has put it in his writings: “All slavery is based on housewifisation.”
The PKK’s feminism explains in part why between a fifth and third of the YPG’s fighting force is made up of women.
As well, Islamic State fighters are said to particularly fear the idea of being killed by a woman.
Whether the YPG is a terrorist organization depends on who is asked.
Turkey insists that since the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, are offshoots of Ocalan’s PKK, they, too, are terrorists.
The U.S., which is desperate to find allies on the ground for its war against the Islamic State, says no. It insists that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the YPG is not connected to Ocalan.
Ottawa hasn’t declared its views yet. But if Rosenberg had joined this particular Kurdish militia two years ago, before the Islamic State thrust itself onto the world stage, she probably would have run afoul of Canada’s stringent anti-terror laws.
These days, the convicted swindler (she spent almost four years in a U.S. prison for her role in a telephone fraud scheme aimed at the elderly) is probably safe — from Ottawa at least.
She will find, though, that her new associates in the YPG have a complicated history.
Among other things, they’ve been playing footsie with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. According to a report from the International Crisis Group, Assad has been quietly bankrolling their de facto government in Syria’s Kurdish enclave. The YPG, in return, has refrained from attacking the regime.
Indeed, at different times the Kurdish militia has turned its guns on moderate anti-Assad rebels backed by Washington.
But now Kurdish fighters are beloved by the West. The Washington Post reports that the YPG’s Lions of Rojava website is successfully recruiting Western fighters for the Kurdish cause.
According to the Daily Mail, these foreign fighters include a handful of U.S. veterans and two motorcycle gangs — one from Germany and one from the Netherlands.
A 20-year-old Danish woman is also reported to have joined the Kurdish militia in Syria.
There is an appealing element of heroism to all of this. We’ve not seen it since the 1980s, when the West lionized another set of foreign fighters bent on fighting tyranny.
Those fighters were known as the mujahedeen. They chased the old Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Then they gave rise to something called Al Qaeda.