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» » » The British civilians still fighting Isil in Syria: 'We won't stop until the job is done'


Jac Holmes - as British man fighting so-called Islamic State in Syria was killed while clearing landmines


hen the bodies of Jac Holmes and Oliver Hall, the latest British men who died fighting Isil in Syria before Christmas, land at Heathrow this week, they will be greeted by dozens of members of Britain's Kurdish community. They will be welcomed not as tragic victims of a foreign war, but as martyrs.

Image result for Oliver Hall,ypg
Holmes and Hall were the sixth and seventh British citizens to die in the fight against Isil, and just two of hundreds of international volunteers who have flocked to join the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) in Rojava, a self-declared autonomous region of northern Syria.
Much has been said about these volunteers' motivations for going: war junkies, void-fillers, steely-gazed idealists. Although those may be reasons that drive many of them to war, they are not necessarily what make them stay.
Holmes,  a 24-year old former IT worker and decorator from Bournemouth, with no previous military experience, was one of the longest-serving foreign volunteers of the YPG, having travelled to northern Syria three times since August 2015. Yesterday, his mother, Angie Blannin, told how his primary motivation was to help destroy Isil, but how he also grew to appreciate many of the values espoused by Rojava’s revolutionary spirit.
“Most of all, he loved being a soldier,” she said. “Not because he was a bloodthirsty killer; he was an intelligent guy. But he wanted to get rid of Daesh. He was appalled at the atrocities they were committing and felt the Western governments weren't doing enough.”
Image result for Jac Holmes

Jac Holmes  CREDIT: FACEBOOK
Describing the fight against Isil as her son's 'calling', she added: "He didn't feel like he was doing anything constructive in the UK; fixing computers and painting walls. He felt there were a lot of things happening in the world and he was angry at the apathy in the UK. This fight gave him a purpose he hadn't found in the UK. He said: ‘Mum, I love what I’m doing and I’m good at it.’
I regularly spoke to Holmes during his time in Syria. When I asked him about his motivations last year, he described Rojava as his “second home”. He, like many of the volunteers, I have spoken to over the last three years, said he saw fighting as giving him meaning, an antidote to a divided, lonely and consumer-led world of the modern West.
'In Britain, we spend so much time working and worrying about money, and relationships aren't the same as they were before technology got in the way,' he said from his frontline base. 'Here, everyone is brought together by a common cause: to destroy Daesh and fight for a better world. It is good to be attached to something bigger than yourself.'
'When I first arrived in Syria, I knew almost nothing about the politics of Rojava, I just wanted to help destroy Isil,' recalled Macer Gifford, a 31-year-old former Tory councillor, from Oxford, who gave up his job in the city to travel to Syria in December 2014 and has fought there on and off ever since.
'Then, a big group of male and female fighters sat me down for dinner. I was blown away by how many Western stereotypes of the Middle East were broken in such a short time; from the girls smoking and discussing politics, to the female commander asking one of the men to clear away the plates.
'There was such hope and optimism in the air; I couldn't help but feel invigorated by it.'

A Kurdish fighter from the YPJ



When George Orwell arrived in revolutionary Barcelona to help defend the Spanish Republic from Franco's uprising, he too was powerfully struck by the atmosphere of hope. He later wrote, 'I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for ... Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.' Eight decades on, and in a very different warzone, a similar revolutionary optimism was taking hold.
Today that spirit is transforming Rojava. Inspired by the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey, and triggered by 2011's 'Arab Spring', people are organising themselves into grassroots people's assemblies and co-operatives. They are declaring their autonomy from the state and their wish for real democracy, including a system of co-presidentship whereby a man and a woman share power at every level.
Isil, now, are all but defeated in Syria. However, many volunteers are remaining to fight what they see as a “second phase” of the Syrian Kurds’ battle.
One of them is Kimberley Taylor, a 28-year-old activist from Blackburn. The only known British woman to have volunteered to fight this war, she enlisted with the YPJ, the all-female affiliate army to the YPG, in March 2016. 'This is fundamentally a feminist revolution,' she told me from Syria. “What is bringing people together is a common sense that we are fighting for an alternative political system in the Middle East based. Ocalan himself says that without committing ourselves to women's liberation, the Middle East will never have peace.'
Image result for Kimberley Taylor

Kimberley Taylor, a former maths student from Blackburn, left the UK  to join a Kurdish women’s unit
To these recruits, revolution is seductive. Unlike the Peshmerga in Iraq, the YPG  does not require recruits to have previous military experience, and gives them Kurdish noms-de-guerre, often with an international revolutionary tinge. Ryan Lock, who took his own life to avoid capture in December 2016,  for instance, was known as Berxwedan Givara ('Resistance Guevara'), while Dean Evans – the 22-year-old dairy farmer from Warminster killed in July 2016– fought as Givara Rojava ('Guevara of the West'). Evans was so committed, he even asked in his will to be buried in Syria with his 'brothers and sisters.' When YPG soldiers die, they are celebrated as martyrs.
Isil is not the only enemy who wants them dead. Turkey views this liberation movement as an extension of the PKK, which has been involved in armed struggle against the state for decades. But rather than scare these foreigners off, Turkey's belligerence seems to have fostered an even fiercer underdog mentality.
None believed this more than Lock. On 24 November 2016, he witnessed the deaths of most of his unit – including his two best friends – in a Turkish airstrike. 'We were taking a small village when we got hit by Turkish jets in the night,' he later wrote on Facebook.
'Two of my friends, Anton and Michael, were killed among many others. I’m staying to finish out my six months.' He took his own life a month later, when his frontline position was overrun. When the hearse left the UK airport in February last year, mourners who had never met the 22-year-old from Chichester held roses and framed photographs of the former chef hailing him a hero.
Image result for Ryan Lock, from Chichester

Ryan Lock, from Chichester, West Sussex, who was killed fighting against Islamic State in Syria 
Some of these self-styled freedom fighters seem driven by relatively straightforward idealism – a desire to play their part in creating a friendlier world. But inspired by the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, a growing group of leftist foreign fighters established the International Freedom Battalion (IBF) in June 2015 in response to what they called a 'bloodbath” in the Middle East.
When I sent the group a message through Facebook last year, one British member, who preferred not to give his name, replied via an encrypted messaging service. “I have absolutely no faith in liberal democracy's ability to resist fascism, only an international socialist movement can,' he wrote. 
The YPG won't say how many foreigners are currently in its ranks for security reasons, but one high-ranking Spanish fighter told me he believed the figure to be “over a thousand”. It is noticeable, he added, how many are under the age of 30.
'The war with Isil is a defining moment, certainly for my generation who've grown up post 9/11 and seen this outburst of terrorism around the world,' Gifford told me last year. “These young men, myself included, are going out there, fighting, dying, because they see it as their Orwellian moment, their anti-fascist moment, like the Spanish Civil War.'
George Orwell came home disillusioned with Spain's revolution, which ended in defeat and 36 years of fascist rule. I asked Taylor what she thought of this.
“We cannot let it end the same way again,' she said. 'Isil are finished, but this isn't just a fight against Daesh. The YPJ will still be fighting, but this time for women's rights in the Middle East. We won't stop until the job is done.”

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