Syrian Kurdistan — or Rojava, as it's known to the region's 4 million residents — lies to the north of Syria, along the Turkish border. In 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group affiliated with the left-wing militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), declared Rojava's autonomy from the Syrian state. Since then, the PYD's armed wing, known as the YPG (People's Protection Units), has been waging an all-out war against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, the group has introduced what it describes as a system of "democratic and autonomous" government in the areas it controls.
On November 13, as Paris was struck by an unprecedented series of coordinated terror attacks, IS was suffering heavy defeats in Syria and Iraq. Working with Iraqi Peshmerga forces, the YPG seized control of several IS positions, cutting off the main supply routes to the group's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
Last summer, Jacques (not his real name), a French communist in his 20s, gave up everything to join the YPG, take part in the Rojava revolution, and help defeat IS. This week Jacques — nicknamed Sirat by his brothers in arms — granted VICE News an exclusive interview from the Syrian front.
VICE News: Why did you come to Syrian Kurdistan?
Jacques: I came mainly to take part in this revolution. I've been a Marxist internationalist revolutionary militant since my teens. It would have been hypocritical to watch what's going on in Syrian Kurdistan today from afar. The YPG are structuring their territory according to socialist and libertarian ideology, by setting up municipalities in every location they free.
I also came here to help the Kurdish people. They have been martyred and persecuted by all kinds of regimes, discriminated against throughout history, but they have an enormous capacity for resilience. They were able to avoid falling back into the dark ages like other oppressed people and instead, bide their time. Another thing is that their main enemy, Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS] is today the incarnation neo-fascism. My decision [to join] is also the decision of a fervent "antifa" [short for anti-fascist].
Photo of "Jacques" taken after the November 13 terror attacks in Paris.
How did you make contact with them?
Through the "Lions of Rojava" Facebook group. I contacted them via private message. Then they organized my travel. I didn't tell anyone about it because I knew they'd try to talk me out of it. I worked for a few months to pay for my travel and to have some money set aside in case I fell on hard times. Then I took a plane to Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and from there I was taken care of. Since the border between Syria and Iraq is closed, I had to dress up as a Peshmerga to join Syrian Kurdistan.
Did you warn your family?
Yes and no. But that isn't your concern.
Can you describe the training you received?
The training lasts two weeks from the moment the volunteers arrive and it's very minimal: How to operate a Kalashnikov, physical training and the rudiments of military strategy. After I passed the test, there were several other training sessions. The reason they don't teach you much in the beginning is because they know that a lot of foreign volunteers won't be able to handle it and will go home after a few weeks.
How difficult are the conditions?
The living conditions are extremely difficult. Add to this the cultural misunderstandings and the reality of war… But many of those who stay on have strong political motives and believe in the political ambitions of Syrian Kurdistan.
'I've met some real psychopaths who have a thirst for war and who will shoot at anything and everything.'
Who are the Westerners who join the YPG?
Those you see in the media are not at all representative: They're former soldiers turned crusaders or reckless adventurers who pose with guns but in reality tend to hide out. I've met some real psychopaths who have a thirst for war and who will shoot at anything and everything.
Their appetite for media coverage is overshadowing the other volunteers that make up the majority of fighters: people who are politically motivated and are here more for the Rojava revolution than for the Islamic State.
Have you met any other French individuals?
I met four: two former legionnaires who are real scum, a young guy who seemed like a drifter and a crusader type. I'm not interested in people like that. Once again, they represent only a minority of volunteers. In my unit there are four Germans, one Italian, and one American, and they're true comrades. That said, I know there are others, but I haven't met any.
Is it fair to say it's an international brigade, like the ones that fought during the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1938?
In a way, yes. There are some very distinct units that bring together people who are part of the communist-internationalist movement, but it's not on the same scale. If truth be told, Europe's internationalist political parties have neither the courage nor the will to act, despite flaunting their convictions. They are pounding the pavement in France but are doing absolutely nothing tangible for the Kurdish cause. They would rather look away, perhaps because they are scared of commitment, perhaps out of hypocrisy They are armchair revolutionaries. If they really want to see what a popular uprising looks like, they should come over here and see it firsthand.
What kind of reception did you get from the locals?
We received a warm, welcome, it's almost embarrassing. People can't believe that anyone would travel thousands of kilometers to defend the Rojava cause.
A photo of "Jacques" with two fellow soldiers.
On October 13, Amnesty International released a report accusing the YPG of war crimes, including the mass displacement of civilians, razing villages to the ground… Did you witness the YPG carrying out any abuses?
Absolutely not. That's bullshit. They [Amnesty International observers] were on the ground for two weeks and then left. Yes, villages were destroyed, but mainly for strategic reasons. The YPG have a very humanist approach to war. Their objective is to free the people form the tyranny of IS.
The Kurds have every reason in the world to want to kill each and every jihadist, but they don't. When they storm a village, they always leave an exit route for the enemy, in order to spare our soldiers [to avoid deadly fighting between their own soldiers and a cornered enemy]. Our forces do not bother civilians. The YPG are the only ones in Syria to be effectively fighting against IS. They are the only ones offering a revolutionary and humanist political alternative.
Can you describe life within your unit?
My unit is made up entirely of communists — mainly Kurds from Syria and Turkey. It's a horizontal military hierarchy and we have no insignias. When we go out on patrol, the major leads the way. It's the most dangerous position to be in because if we hit an explosive device, he's the first to get hit. At night, the entire unit meets up to discuss what isn't working. It may seem like not a big deal, but when you live 24/7 with a bunch of other guys, it helps to defuse the tension.
What is everyday life like on the front?
The truth is, when you are on the front, you have nothing to do 90 percent of the time. Dealing with the boredom can be tough. But at any minute you could go from utter boredom to intense military action. Because of all the other allied forces on the ground, you could be killed because of a simple misunderstanding. Once we were washing ourselves in a river and a brigade showed up on the other bank. We almost killed each other before realizing it was a militia defending one of the neighboring villages.
And then there are the explosive devices that are scattered everywhere, the risk of an ambush… You're constantly stressed even though there's not much to do, apart from drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. You can't allow yourself to think, or your mind will drift… And that's only when you're not fighting.
Watch the VICE News dispatch Pushing Back the Islamic State: The Battle for Rojava:
What do you mean?
Around two months ago — I've lost track of time — we were on the front line, busy securing our positions. They were shooting at us with anti-aircraft guns and rockets. We were running as fast as we could to take shelter and then running back to erect the barricade.
We spent one night hiding out in a building that was being pelted with bombs… There was this young Turkish guy who was silently checking his watch every two seconds. He did that for two hours, I think they sent him home. You can't allow your mind drift.
Did you take part in the recent offensive by the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State?
Yes. It was exhausting. We were fighting for three weeks. At the height of the offensive, we were ordered to secure a position in a cemetery. We had to dig trenches and erect stone barricades while being shot at by the enemy. It was as though we were digging our own graves.
But the results are in: it was a complete victory. We took back the town of al-Hawl and seven other surrounding villages. We opened a new road to Raqqa. The IS guys — who are always portrayed as determined and ready to die to keep their positions — fled like rats.
How did you hear about the attacks in Paris?
I was on the front. Some comrades heard the news on the radio. It's carnage… But don't worry, despite what people think, they are really being pushed back here.
How did your unit react?
As you can imagine, they've seen things like that before. But they were very compassionate. They are brothers in arms and comrades.
What is your perspective on these attacks?
Of course these attacks affect me, because they're happening at home. But as I've said before, I'm not moved by the spirit of nationalism: I'm not here to fly the banner of "Western civilization," but to support the revolution in Rojava. These attacks make me even more certain that I'm fighting a good fight.
The Western coalition has said it would intensify its military campaign in Syria and Iraq. What can NATO and Russia do to help?
Nothing. Western interference has has always been disastrous. We are 15,000 determined YPG fighter. We are the most structured and most efficient organization in the fight against the Islamic State. We will conquer them.
'We are the most structured and most efficient organization in the fight against the Islamic State. We will conquer them.'
What about airstrikes?
It's important to recognize that aircraft are key to our offensives. They limit the movements of Islamic State troops and destroy the artillery that they constantly have to cart around. Psychologically speaking, the impact on them is huge. When the planes dive towards the enemy and shoot at them with their automatic guns, the noise it makes… It's as though the devil himself were coming down to Earth. Once I saw a jihadist who'd been killed by one of these canons. He had a hole where his face should have been. All you could see was the beard around his neck. But I'm no dummy. Whenever imperialist powers intervene, they want something in return. The YPG will have to pay for this support, but they have no choice.
Do you think you'll ever go back to France?
To be honest, I'm not sure whether I'll come back alive. Of course, I miss a lot of things: partying, drinking beer, girls… But today, my plans for the future are on hold. In the end, anything becomes a routine — war included. You can't allow yourself to think, otherwise your mind will wander and that's not good. So I'm trying not to project myself [into the future].
Why did you want to speak to the media today?
I think it's important to restore the truth about this war, about how Syrian Kurds are fighting it. The YPG have completely proven themselves through battles with the IS, even as they carry out an actual revolution on their own territory. There is a complete reorganization of society — they are bringing democracy to a people that never had it. I also want people to see the volunteers different. For the most part, their political motives are sincere and they are not fanatical crusaders.
Do you have any regrets?
I have no regrets. I'm exactly where I should be. If I could stay here longer, I would. I'm fighting for the only worthwhile cause today.
Follow Thomas Laurent on Twitter: @ThomaLaurent