I fought with the Kurds; they are not the enemy
First, I think I should introduce myself. My name is Jamie Williams. In 2014, I attempted to travel to Iraq and then on to Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled and ethnically Kurdish region of northern Syria. My plan was to volunteer for the Kurdish forces, the YPG, against the Islamic State, Daesh, but I was stopped at the airport and charged by the Australian Federal Police with terrorism offences.
The YPG is not listed as a terrorist organisation; the Australian government has actually provided material and air support to the group. However, it has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which has been on the government’s list of terrorist organisations since 2005, despite many attempts to have it delisted. With the support of my legal team, most notably Jessie Smith of Stary Norton Halphen, the charges were later dropped at the direction of George Brandis, the then attorney-general, who did so without explanation.
In 2017, I once again attempted to reach Rojava. This time, I made it. I volunteered for eight months, spending the first month in training at the volunteers’ academy – learning the language, the culture and the ideology of the YPG and its female-only counterpart, the YPJ. One night, about halfway through my training, the walls started to rumble as I lay in bed. At first, half-asleep, I thought it was thunder, but then came another blast: maybe a bomb or an airstrike?
The guard on duty kicked open the door to our room in a panic, yelling for everyone to get out of the building. We were split up and scattered into the surrounding fields. I spent what felt like hours watching the attack, counting the seconds between visible explosions and the boom of the shockwaves passing through me, trying to get a gauge of how far they were landing from us.
The attack was not from Daesh, we were later told by the commanders at the academy, but from Turkey. (This was later corroborated by media reports.) Turkish troops were dropping bombs on a hilltop that was then the headquarters of the YPG, near the Turkish border. The position was destroyed along with other nearby targets. This was the first introduction I had to the war, and to the fact that Turkey – in addition to Daesh – posed a very real threat to the Kurds.
The Kurds have been an invaluable ally in the fight against Daesh. For five years, they fought alongside troops from the United States and its allies. The Kurds acted as the ground forces, the eyes and ears for the US bombardments, clearing villages and cities – house by house, street by street – risking explosive booby traps, engaging in firefights, identifying targets and calling in co-ordinates for airstrikes. It is estimated the Kurds lost 11,000 men and women in the war, not to mention those severely wounded.
In these terms, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US support for the Kurds in northern Syria can only be seen as a betrayal. Turkey has made no secret of its intentions for the Kurds in this region. By midweek, Turkey had invaded the Kurdish-controlled autonomous region in northern Syria to begin Operation Peace Spring. The first airstrike came on Wednesday. According to observers, seven Kurds have already been killed.
But this is not the first violence. In early 2018, the Turkish government, with the help of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), launched an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish city of Afrin, which was under YPG control at the time. The offensive was called Operation Olive Branch. The city was bombarded day and night by airstrikes and artillery and, with no international intervention, the YPG was forced to withdraw. There have been many reports of war crimes being committed against the civilian population in Afrin. Human Rights Watch has accused the Turkish forces of allowing armed Syrian groups to detain and “disappear” civilians. Since the operation began, some 300,000 Kurds have been displaced from Afrin, and Turkey has resettled refugees from eastern Ghouta in those people’s homes.
My experience of the Rojava Kurds was of a people who believe in having a truly democratic society. Where all are fairly and equally represented, whether they be male or female; Kurdish, Syrian, Arab or Yazidi; Muslim, Christian or Zoroastrian.
The Rojava Kurds believe in equality of the sexes, so much so they have an all-female fighting force, the YPJ, which works alongside the men of the YPG in direct combat on the front lines. This remains almost unheard of in the modern military world, and is extremely progressive for the Middle East.
They also believe in a society where nature is looked after, and although there is abundant oil in Rojava, they do not want to turn it into an oil fiefdom. Given their rejection of Western capitalist ideals, some call them communists, but their political system of “democratic confederalism” is in fact a modern mixture of ideas pulled together by their ideological leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999.
Until September 2014, Daesh had steamrolled through large parts of Iraq and Syria largely unopposed, gaining territory and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians – many of whom have been locked in the refugee crisis ever since. It’s easy to forget, five years on, how ambitious Daesh was back then. In al-Tabqa, near al-Raqqa, I collected pamphlets of Daesh propaganda with a map of the world on the cover, each country blacked out by the IS flag. Their goal was to create a global caliphate, and at the time it seemed they would stop at nothing.
Then came the battle for Kobanî. This was a huge turning point – it was the last city held by the Kurds, though at one point it was at least half-controlled by Daesh. But then the US and other Western allies stepped up and started to provide invaluable air support. Air dominance is a huge part of winning wars, and now the Kurds had it.
Bit by bit, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and YPG, with the help of US arms and air support, retook the territories held by Daesh, including al-Raqqa, where I spent four months witnessing the liberation of the city – and then the aftermath.
Daesh had left behind hundreds of improvised explosive devices. The victims of these mines were, on the whole, civilians who just wanted to return to their homes. Most of my days were spent patrolling the city with my unit, identifying and disarming these bombs in the hopes al-Raqqa’s population could return and rebuild their city from the rubble.
We know what Turkey has planned for Rojava; we’ve seen it before in Afrin. Heavy bombardment, followed by ground forces supplemented with TFSA groups, mass displacement of the Kurdish civilian population, war crimes and mass resettling of refugees. Turkey wants to avoid sharing a border with Kurds at any cost. You just have to look at how they have tried to eradicate the Kurdish culture in southern Turkey – outlawing their language, national colours and customs. This is why the PKK resistance has been going for the past 40 years. I believe President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fears a legitimised Kurdish region neighbouring his country. He calls the YPG terrorists, no different from the PKK because they share the same ideology. He fears a legitimised Rojava will give strength to the PKK, and eventually risk losing part of Turkey to a united Kurdistan region.
The Kurds have a saying, “No friends but the mountains”; once again they have been proved right. America’s betrayal angers and saddens me. After how much the Kurds have sacrificed for us all on the front lines against global terrorism, they do not deserve this. They do not deserve the world’s silence.
I fought with the Kurds; I was welcomed by them and lost friends in the fight against Daesh. Now with the US gone and Turkey starting a new offensive against Rojava, almost instantly we have seen a resurgence of Daesh. Midweek, Daesh suicide bombers attacked Kurdish security forces in al-Raqqa, Daesh’s former capital. There are an estimated 12,000 Daesh prisoners, including many Westerners, who are being held in overcrowded prisons by the SDF, led by the YPG. I fear what will happen to their Kurdish guards, and what will happen if these prisons are taken by Turkish forces, if the fighters make their way back to the battlefield. Either way, there is another army waiting to be mobilised against the Kurds.
So now that the Kurds face a threat on two fronts, with no US support, what comes next for them? I have no doubt the YPG has been preparing for this fight and will not give up easily. But they must look to make new allies and are considering working with the Syrian governmental forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and with the Russians, as a means of survival. The US wants to get rid of Assad and Russia is an economic rival, so why push the Kurds towards them? Why risk unleashing 12,000 battle-hardened extremists who hold an undying resentment for the West, especially after working so hard to defeat them? This decision will do nothing but undermine all the progress that has been made in recent years in the war on terror. Nothing good can come from this. The Kurds are not the enemy.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "I fought with the Kurds; they are not the enemy". Subscribe here.