When we write and talk about foreign fighters we are normally referring to the phenomenon of outsiders who travel to engage in combat in a land that is not theirs. More specifically, at least these days, we are focused on those joining up with terrorist groups like Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra which are involved, and not in a good way, in the interminable Syrian civil war. Western analysts and governments are naturally most worried about the departure of their own citizens in this conflict – although the vast majority of volunteers are actually from Africa and the Middle East – since they believe that these soldiers present a real and serious threat upon their return.
There is, however, a very different type of foreign fighter that has arisen in the Syrian war: Westerners who leave to fight against IS, usually with Kurdish groups. There are examples from many countries – Canada, the US, the UK, Denmark, etc. – and there are many reasons why they have decided to abandon lives in the West for the dangers of a war zone – desire to help an underdog, disgust at the heinous acts of IS, disappointment in the lack of response to the humanitarian catastrophe, etc. Interestingly, while most are soldiers or former soldiers, some have little or no military experience.
Legal issues aside (it is illegal to join a foreign armed force if you are Canadian and it is also illegal to join a terrorist group – the Kurdish YPG is associated with the PKK, a listed terrorist entity), how should these individuals be treated? Are they heroes? Are they mercenaries? Are they thrillseekers? In other words, should they be praised or condemned?
It is noteworthy that to date few states have chosen to prosecute returning “good” foreign fighters – the Netherlands just elected not to do so – and most fighters have reported being subject to nothing more than a cursory interview with border or security officials once home. It is unclear whether the decision not to lay charges is a political one or is based on some other thinking.
On the one hand it is quite easy to see why some would view these soldiers as having fought for noble reasons. IS does a great job of showing itself to be the villain and anyone who puts him/herself (there are women fighters as well) in harm’s way has to be good, no? There is also a sense of selflessness and sacrifice among these volunteers, two qualities that most people admire.
On the other hand, there are potential downsides to this activity. It is uncertain what the government of Canada would be expected to do (or even in a position to do) should any one of these soldiers end up in the hands of IS. Furthermore, the Kurds with whom these foreigners are fighting are also aiming to establish an independent Kurdish state, possibly sooner rather than later. Not that the Kurds do not deserve their own homeland, except that no Western state officially supports this position. Effectively, Western volunteers are aiding in the possible creation of a country that their governments do not want to see.
It is interesting to note the contrast in Canada with the last time a large foreign fighter contingent left our shores: the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. Government officials were convinced that the Canadian volunteers were troublemakers and possible security threats and Parliament passed the Foreign Enlistment Act in 1937 to make their actions illegal. Upon their return some were investigated, most ignored and none honoured by the government for their service. A memorial to their sacrifice was not erected until 2001.
What then should be said about our fellow citizens fighting on the “right” side in Iraq/Syria? There is no question that they are exhibiting bravery and a deep longing to help. They are, however, also getting involved in matters that are much bigger than they are and which they may not understand. At least one Canadian – John Gallagher – has died in theatre thus far and more are likely to follow him. It is incumbent on governments to plainly state their position on this issue (the former Tory government stated that it preferred those keen to fight to join our military). We owe at least that to the men and women dedicating their lives to a cause they hold dear.