In recent years several hundred Europeans and Americans have joined the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria to first fight ISIL and now Turkey. Frenchman Maxime Barrat*, who is in contact with Belgian secret services, is only one of them.
"Their names are Maxime, Hanna and William. They are a truck driver, model and restaurant owner. The number of westerners who go to Syria to first fight Daesh and now Turkey, joining Kurdish forces, is increasing by the day. The People's Protection Units, or YPG, are considered by Ankara as a terrorist organization like the PKK. In this context, the departure of fighters is beginning to worry the European Union and especially Belgium, seen as a hub for these Western fighters and many other people accused of terrorism in their country of origin," reports euronews' Gülsüm Alan.
Maxime Barrat now lives in Belgium where he has made himself known to the authorities and shares information with them about his time in Syria.
"We were all spectators...All humans were spectators to this - how to say - of this massacre. İt was a massacre. We leave people to die without doing anything. And I told myself why not go? It is risky, it is dangerous, especially with ISIL, it is treacherous. They are very duplicitous on the ground. When you wake up at 7am it can be at any moment a guy with an explosive jacket who explodes himself 10 metres away from you,” he says.
In these western batallions there are also a lot of women. Hanna Bohman is a former Canadian model who decided to travel to Syria in 2015 to become a fighter. She became a sniper. She returned to Syria in 2017, publicly announcing her intention was to fight ISIL, and for women's rights in the Middle East. She had a motorcycle accident before taking the decision to go to Syria. Hollywood did a documentary on her. Now she is helping refugee families in Canada. She doesn't regret what she did. She is in contact with the police and has no problems with them:
"I am proud what I did but here in Canada the bubble is so thick here that people have no clue. Nobody knows what I did. The police they are all ok with me, they interviewed me . Nobody has a problem with anything. Most of the time people don't even know what the YPG is. I have to explain a lot," she says with a smile.
Western intelligence agencies follow these former fighters and take information from them concerning the situation in Syria and Iraq. They question them before and after their journey. Many of them say that they are in contact with İnterpol.
Flare-ups between the Kurdish and Turkish communities in Brussels are frequent. The last major one was on March 30 last year in front of the Turkish embassy in Brussels. Many people were injured.
Thomas Renard from the Egmont Institute says that the figures are less well known for western fighters because the intelligence services have been more concerned until now about the jihadist problem, which was perceived as a greater threat.
“In the long term, there are sure to be, there are starting to be some worries, maybe even some unease about the risk of importing into our country, this is already the case partly; to reinforce here in Europe, the conflict between the Kurds and Turks here in Europe and in Brussels,” he says.
The People's Protection Units form the armed wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). Former PYD leader Salih Muslim says that western fighters share the mission of the Kurdish forces. İn February a Czech court released Muslim, who Turkey wanted extradited on terrorism charges.
“Those poeple are defending the values as I mentioned. They are sharing this mission I mean against brutalism, these extremist jihadis and so on,” he insists.
Although it is quite clear that the YPG is linked to the PKK, less clear is why it has to be seen automatically as a terrorist organisation.
For 40 years the PKK has fought an armed conflict with the Turkish state, with the initial aim of achieving an independent Kurdish state, later changing it to a demand for equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. The PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation by the EU, US and Turkey.
It is a point the governing AKP representative in Brussels repeats every day.
“These are direct extensions of the PKK terrorist organization. The PKK is an organization known by the EU NATO and US as a terrorist organisation. If you cooperate with the Syrian extension of this organization, you are indirectly cooperating with the PKK,” says Ruhi Açıkgöz.
Until now according some estimations around 40 westerners have died, the most recent being Briton Anna Campbell, a member of an all-female combat unit, on March 19.
*Maxime is a 28-year-old truck driver who went for the first time to Syria in the summer 2015 during the battle of Kobane. After joining the kurdish YPG forces several times, whom he contacted via social media, he has just returned, deciding to live in Belgium. He totally financed his travel himself. He followed military, historical and ideological courses in a training camp reserved for International fighters. He told euronews that he is in contact with the Belgian Secret services, that they are very kind with him and he shares information with them about what's happening in Syria and also concerning other fighters.