Lads’ Army: Who Are The Young Men Fighting Isis in Syria?

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Published in The Sunday Telegraph on 08 Jan 2017

This story was originally published in The Sunday Telegraph’s News Review. If you would prefer to read it there, click here.

Rojhat Rojava, 22, from Nottingham (top left); Ozkan Odzil, 30, from London (right); and Ryan Lock, 20, from Chichester (bottom left)

On December 21 last year, Ryan Lock became the third British citizen to die fighting against Isil in the Middle East. At 20 years old, he was the youngest.

A chef from Chichester, Lock – who had no previous military experience – had travelled to Syria last August, telling his friends and family he was going on holiday to Turkey. He was killed four months later when his position was overrun by a surprise Isil attack on the outskirts of Raqqa.

Lock was one of a growing number of Britons travelling to Iraq or Syria to fight with the Kurds against Isil. Current estimates stand at around 80 Brits who have gone so far.

Over the past two years, I’ve tracked down about a third of these men who, of their own volition, travelled to join either the People’s Defence Units (YPG), the Kurdish military force fighting in northern Syria, or the Peshmerga, the army of Iraqi Kurdistan. They vary in age, from late teens to early 50s – though the majority are lads in their 20s.

They buy their own plane tickets, weapons and kit, and are paid only in food and gratitude. As such, they cannot be called mercenaries, but volunteers. They go, most say, because their government doesn’t want to.

But then, nowhere on Earth is more dangerous for a British man to be.

“As a Westerner, the moment you step off the plane there is a $150,000 bounty on your head,” says Ben, a 30-year-old former British soldier from Fife who spent six months over two trips in Iraq last year. “That’s dead. Alive is a lot more.”

The reasons these men are putting themselves in such danger are varied and complex.

I heard stories of drifters and weirdos, like the lonely American who wanted to “commit suicide by Isil” and the Brit who thought his psychic abilities let him read the minds of Isil fighters. I heard of ex-servicemen who’d never experienced war and wanted to “check the box”; and those who, it was said, were in it for a book deal.

Some even said they’d come because they’d completed the video game Call of Duty and now wanted to sample the real thing.

When George Orwell left to fight in Spain’s civil war in 1936, a friend asked him why. “This fascism,” he replied, “somebody’s got to stop it.”  Some of the young British men fighting Isil seem to think the same way.

They watch the group’s atrocities on TV and are moved to act on feelings of powerlessness and injustice. They talk of slave markets, beheadings and rape camps.

“We need to pick a side,” Jac Holmes, a 23-year-old IT specialist from Portsmouth who has been fighting in Syria on and off since February 2015, told me last summer.

“Isil won’t stop until they have destroyed everything Western civilisation has built for the past 1,000 years. Britain simply isn’t doing enough to counter this threat to our country.”

First, there are the former British soldiers, most of whom join the Peshmerga, whose structure is more like that of a traditional army than the guerrilla-style set up of the YPG. For many of them, the war against Isil has provided an opportunity fight, better still, for a cause they can believe in.

“I fought in Iraq in 2004 and always felt we should leave a positive legacy rather than the power vacuum that gave rise to Isil,” said Ben. “One of the reasons we went [to Iraq in 2003] was because we were all told a lie by Tony Blair,” added David, a 27-year-old former soldier from Dundee, before he shipped out to Iraq for a second time in February last year. “The whole world should be in there destroying Isil.”

Other ex-soldiers described more visceral motives. “I missed the adrenaline,” former soldier Polish, 28, told me in the summer of 2015, a week after returning from spending four months with the Peshmerga. “I tried bungee-jumping and sky-diving but nothing matched the rush of combat.”

Tim, a 33-year-old former Grenadier Guard from London, went to Iraq in 2015 to rediscover a sense of belonging. “Civvy street was depressing as Hell,” he told me in September 2015. “I love war situations, not because I like fighting, but because it brings people together.”

Many who joined the Peshmerga, however, became frustrated upon arrival when they found it had stopped sending foreigners to the frontline after the first arrivals started dying. “The trouble is, dead Westerners are bad for publicity,” Tim told me.

The YPG is different. That’s why the three Brits to die fighting Isil so far all fell in Syria, rather than Iraq.

Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, a 25-year-old former Royal Marine from Barnsley, was killed when a missile his his combat vehicle on 1 March 2015. “Kosta died doing what he wanted to do,” his mother, Vasiliki, said when I visited her home two weeks after his death. “His life had a purpose and he will be happy that his death did, too.”

Dairy farmer Dean Evans, 22, from Warminster, died at Manbij, northern Syria, trying to rescue a wounded comrade on 21 July last year. “All Dean ever wanted was to be a soldier,” his stepfather, Steve Howell, told me last August. “The British Army wouldn’t let him because he had asthma, nor would the French Foreign Legion, so he sought a way to get a uniform.”

Little is known about the motivations of the chef Ryan Lock. Freeman Stevenson, a 23-year-old American who met him at the YPG’s secret training academy in September, said: “All he ever gave were the basics, like: ‘Well, what else do I have to do?’ and ‘I’m just here to help people.'”

Talk to anyone who has fought with the YPG – a semi-socialist militia where officers are elected by troops and men and women fight side by side – and they will describe a lifestyle far more empowering than the one they’re used to.

“The YPG are not just fighting to free themselves from Daesh, but to create an area that’s free from discrimination and sexism,” a 22-year-old fighter from Nottingham who asked only to be known by his nom-de-guerre, Rojhat Rojava (Sunrise of Rojava) told me.

“I came to Rojava for the first time in April 2015 and stayed for nine months because I wanted to kill Daesh. But I came back last November out of political motivation. I want to see Democratic Confederalism (the libertarian socialist system under which the YPG operate) work and Rojava be free.” The parents of both Scurfield and Evans say their sons would have agreed.

“We have people of all faiths and creeds working together for a just society that is fair to all people,” 30 year-old Ozkan Ozdil, who runs an off-licence in north London, told me from his base in Syria, where he’s now attached to the YPG’s combat medical unit. “It’s beautiful.”

What unites them all seems to be anger at their government for refusing to pull its weight in what they see as the battle for civilisation itself.

“This isn’t someone else’s war,” Ben once told me. “It is our war, and the Kurds are fighting it for us.”

It is also about doing something of consequence with their lives, about taking part in history. This is a war that has – for the first time since the Spanish Civil War – provided British men with the opportunity to fight for a cause. This war, for these men, is pure: a battle between good and evil.

On Thursday night, I sent a message to Ozkan – he is due to deploy to the frontline at Raqqa, where Lock was killed, any day now.

“Is all this worth dying for?”

He replied straight away. “I’d rather die for something than for nothing.”