Geopolitics

When Westerners Go To Syria To Fight Against ISIS

As radical Muslims from the West head to Syria to fight for Islamist forces, other foreigners are joining the Kurdish forces against them. But how useful are these volunteers?

Hollywood actor turned YPG volunteer Michael Enright
Hollywood actor turned YPG volunteer Michael Enright
Adam Lucente

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the most effective groups battling ISIS in Syria, boasts that dozens of foreign volunteer fighters from around the world now serve in its ranks on the battlefield.

These fighters came to Syria for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to a desire to fight ISIS and stop the atrocities they have committed across Syria.

Although the extent of their military impact on the front line remains unclear, many of these fighters have become increasingly important in terms of the YPG’s media strategy, making headlines across the globe.

Speaking to Syria Deeply, Michael Enright, a British YPG volunteer who left behind his acting career in Hollywood (he had a part in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, among others) explained that foreign fighters often participate in direct combat against ISIS alongside Kurdish troops. “Sometimes we’ll clear a village and go in every single house,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll work in teams of three different groups, and we can usually clear two or three blocks at a time.”

Earlier this year, Enright was the subject of a heated war of words between himself and Jordan Matson, a fellow YPG volunteer who frequently appears in international media. Writing on his Facebook, Matson claimed that Enright had been asked to leave the YPG and called on the U.S. State Department to remove Enright from Syria. YPG fighters have declined to comment on whether Enright was asked to leave, and Enright himself denies the allegation altogether.

According to Enright, he and other non-Syrian fighters endure the same wartime conditions as their Kurdish partners. “When we’re out on an operation, we live in bombed-out buildings with no power or running water,” he explained.

Clearly their role is perilous. The Lions of Rojava, a YPG media arm, recently reported on its Facebook page that American volunteer Keith Broomfield had died in Syria in June. The page also lists the deaths of at least four more foreign fighters.

While there’s no question that many of the foreign volunteers are fighting alongside Kurds in dangerous situations, measuring their impact remains more complicated, says Phillip Lohaus, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon analyst.

Estimating that around 100 foreigners have taken up arms with the YPG, Lohaus explains that theirs are not necessarily combat roles. “Most reports indicate that, despite requiring recruits to have had combat experience, few if any of the foreign fighters that have joined the YPG are seeing combat,” he told Syria Deeply.

Certainly, the YPG has a high turnover rate of foreign recruits, according to Enright. He says this is due to frustration over the lack of a bigger role in the fighting. “I think there’s a certain amount of frustration because they don’t see as much action as they would like,” said Enright.

Others have defected over political differences with the YPG, with some joining different militias in nearby Iraq instead.

Many challenges make it difficult for foreign recruits to experience combat action says Lohaus. “A lack of language skills could be a very serious hindrance preventing these fighters from joining the YPG in combat,” he explained.

Scant experience

Others come to the region with few relevant skills. “Depending on the recruit’s level of experience, some may be involved in training YPG fighters. Yet few of the Americans that have joined the YPG (or those from other nationalities for that matter) appear to have much, if any, experience conducting such tasks,” Lohaus added.

Akeed is an American volunteer who goes by a pseudonym for fear of his family’s safety back in the U.S. He says he led a group of around a dozen volunteers who joined the YPG in July. His testimony, in contrast, demonstrates the valuable experience such fighters have brought to the YPG, especially in light of recent U.S. and U.K. involvement in the region’s conflicts. “There are lots of ex-military in the unit,” he told Syria Deeply. “We have helicopter pilots and tank operators, among others.”

As Lohaus points out, though, this does not equate to the YPG providing any meaningful training. Enright admits he had no prior military experience before showing up in Syria five months back, and says he received “a little” basic combat â€" lasting a week â€" and Kurdish language instruction upon arrival. Like others, he has learned some indispensable Kurdish phrases in the field: “Duck!”; “Shoot!”; “Throw your grenade!”

While many questions remain about the utility of foreign volunteers, their propaganda value is much more obvious. “Putting a Western face on a foreign problem helps make the conflict more relatable to people in the West,” said Lohaus, “and also may increase the credibility of YPG efforts to Western audiences.”

Louis, a former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan war veteran, fights in the Assyrian Christian Dwekh Nawsha armed group in neighboring Iraq, which is allied with peshmerga (Kurdish military) forces. Asked why he believed he was allowed to join, he replied, “Media attention definitely, and in their Assyrian communities it builds hope and morale in the men.” He also noted that his and other volunteers’ military experience was a big draw.

The foreign fighters and their supporters admit that propaganda value factors into their roles. The Liberty Lions Facebook page is dedicated to disseminating YPG-related news and is popular among fighters and their support alike. The page’s manager, who requested anonymity, said, “The foreign fighters have affected the morale of people, and they leave behind a spirit of brotherhood and internationalism.”

Foreigners on all sides

Enright acknowledges that this may be a reason why the YPG welcomes foreign members. “That media exposure might be one of the reasons. I think the Kurds feel so isolated and friendless,” he said. He added that his commanding officers told him to “do interviews and get our point of view across,” further confirmation of the YPG’s media strategy regarding its foreign fighters.

Moreover, the fact that the YPG is willing to accept fighters without combat experience indicates, in spite of what they say on social media, that they have other uses for their Western comrades. As well as their media role, Enright claims that some fighters have medical and communication jobs.

Foreign participation in the Syrian Civil War is not limited to the YPG. ISIS is thought to have hosted over 20,000 foreigners. This includes an estimated 30â€"40 Americans and 500 Britons,far exceeding the number of Westerners fighting against the group. The Assad regime has also utilized foreign fighters from Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Enright explained that seeing ISIS's videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley was what prompted to leave behind his acting career to join the fight in Syria. "He was a journalist who was just trying to tell the world what was going on in this region," he said. "And he had his hands tied behind his back and his head cut off by a coward â€" specifically an English coward.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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