BY: Fatih Rifat
PEJOURNAL – The US President Donald Trump stated that the AntiFascist (Antifa) Movement, which stands out in anti-racist protests, should be declared as a terrorist organization, brought up a different aspect of the conflict in Syria: the relationship between Antifa and YPG (People Protection Units).
This movement, whose origins can be dated back to the 1930s, began to be heard again in the USA after 2007 and became well known after 2017. According to Mark Bray, the author of Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, which is the most comprehensive work on this organization, and has many sources related to Antifa. It is permissible to resort to violence and vandalism in order not to give any platform to the far right. This argument claims that “if there was enough reaction in the 1920s and 30s, Hitler would never have appeared”.
In this understanding, anti-fascist groups formed by Italian, Jewish and German origin people in 1920s and 1940s that is taken as a starting point. Another point expressed by Bray is that the wave, which started with the movement of the left in Europe in the 1960s, resonated in the USA in the 1980s and attempted to associate them with the Anti-Racist Action group. However, it is not possible to talk about a continuity or a provable organic link between these alleged historical roots and Antifa.
This suggests that Antifa brings together many radical structures and thoughts. Despite all this, it is not true to say that all components of the movement advocate vandalism and violence in their harshest form. According to Mark Bray, Antifa also performs smoother actions to prevent the emergence and organization of far-right groups and Neo-Nazis. Furthermore, Antifa is not a tight or loose model organization with a clear organizational structure and members whose roles are clearly defined within this structure. However, it consists of people gathered within the framework of partnerships with different ideas.
Antifa is a movement that contains many elements of socialist or anarchist discourses and symbols of LGBT. The flexibility of the ideological base of the movement makes it possible to form a broad-based unity. That is why, it has become a structure that goes underground and can establish a strong network through mass communication. The global visibility of the movement, which started to make its name known in the USA with the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Movement protests, increases with the news about the presence of Antifa in Ukraine and especially with the use of the red and black flag Antifa logo in the YPG ranks in Syria.
In Europe, the symbols of Antifa, PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and YPG have been seen together in extreme leftist actions. The Antifa’s anti-Turkey, YPG/ PKK-related social media and news accounts also frequently strive to launch the war with ISIS as a struggle for democracy and freedom against global fundamentalism by highlighting Antifa symbols.
At the establishment phase in Syria, Antifa was a subunit that was directly connected to YPG. Despite its founder being Marxist and its symbols evoking Antifa movements in the West, most of the first team composed of people that were not interested in Marxism, any leftist and socialist thoughts. Half of these small group members of Germany, the USA, Italy, England and Finland were ex-soldiers and adventurous, and a few were “Marxists”. In other words, it was a structure that went far beyond the ideological background of Antifa worldwide.
The purpose of the YPG is to keep this structure at hand as an address for foreigners who come from the West and adopt most anarchist or radical revolutionary ideas. In this process, YPG has two objectives: keep control of radical leftists in Turkey and message to strengthen its image in the West. The organization ensures its effectiveness among radical groups in Europe through expanding its propaganda network and ideologically indoctrinated people.
In the context of the Syrian Civil War, it is estimated that there were no less than 600 Western people in the ranks of the YPG, and that the leftist groups had come to the region through the discourse of fighting against ISIS. However, the backgrounds and motivations of people from different countries who participated in the YPG has been examined by the United Kingdom-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, which is one of the leading radicalization research centres of the world.
The analysis of the 300-person database that has included the YPG ranks, named Transnational Volunteers against ISIS stated “a case in point is Jordan Matson, from the United States, one of the first Western volunteers to come to the conflict zone. Matson first started posting on Facebook about the fight in Syria in September 2014. His social media posts and media interviews evinced the “classic” combination of motivations for joining the conflict: sympathy for the Kurds, moral outrage at ISIS atrocities, anger regarding inaction on the part of the international community and Western governments, and religious belief.”
Some people see themselves at the metaphorical front line. By coming to the conflict zone to fight, they are playing a role in ensuring that ISIS is kept at bay, or clearly either anti‑Islamic to some degree, or seek to take revenge for terrorist attacks carried out in the West by Islamist terrorist groups:
“I am a proud British citizen… how I defend Kurdistan, I am also ready to defend UK as well, [what I am doing now] is not only for Kurdistan… but some of my fighting is to defend UK as well” (Mama Kurda-British Peshmerga Volunteer).
“I wonder who is going to be the first spineless western politician to come out in the media and say that the Paris murders had nothing to do with Islam, that Islam is a religion of peace that western countries welcome Muslims etc?” (Rob Hartley-British Volunteer).
“Killing an ISIS member, to me that’s doing a good deed to the world. All of them need to get wiped out” (Jeremy Woodard-American YPG Volunteer).
In addition, one Greek YPG fighter, Kristopher Nicholaidis, was 28 years old when he entered the conflict zone in 2014. He is a self‑proclaimed democratic socialist who, by his own account, comes from a political family. “I consider IS jihadists as 21st century fascists posing a greater global threat as they barbarically spread Islamofascism on an international level … I joined this struggle to fight against global fascism in defense of democracy and peace in Kurdish Rojava”.
Another individual, “Jacques” from France, who was in his twenties when he entered the conflict zone in 2015, claims to have been a “Marxist internationalist revolutionary militant” since his teenage years. Jacques has told the media, “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. Another thing is that their main enemy, ISIS, is today the incarnation of neo‑fascism.” Several fighters with the YPG either have pronounced anarchist sympathies or self‑identify as anarchists.
An example is Robert Grodt, from California, aged 28 at the time of his death in the battle for Raqqa in July 2017. Grodt, described by friends as an idealist, had a history of political activism and was involved in the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011. He was married with a four‑year‑old daughter, had studied philosophy in college and was described by friends and family members to be an idealist. In one video he made, he said: “My reasons for joining the YPG was to help the Kurdish people in their struggle for autonomy in Syria and elsewhere and also to do my best to help fight Daesh and help create a more secure world.”
Another report published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has a global reputation for its security and strategy field, major in radicalization and political violence, named the Shooting in the Right Direction: Anti-ISIS Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria surveys that shows the majority of Westerners who joined in the YPG are of military origin. For example, more than 60 of 170 people has been identified that have military backgrounds. Furthermore, Kurdish is the most common ethnicity among anti-ISIS foreign fighters because of the influence of YPG in the region.
The largest self-identified ethnic minority group among the dataset were Kurdish (12%), with a small number of ethnically Assyrian and Yazidi fighters also present. It is not difficult to estimate that this number would be higher.
In the 1970s and 80s, radical left terrorist organizations in Europe were considered as an important threat. The reason for this was not only the Cold War, but also these organizations had used brutal violence. Most people would have already forgotten the Red Brigade or the Red Army Faction. After the 90s, radical leftist or anarchist violence in the West had been ineffective compared to previous years.
However, in the past five years, these individuals or the groups have learned how to use military ammunition and heavy weapons. They have specialized in advanced handmade explosives and have received training on raiding in the residential areas, preparing traps and learned how to survive. They had even implemented it in one of the conflicts in the world. Nevertheless, Westerners, who joined the YPG ranks, have not received any sanctions when they returned to their country, except for the former soldier, the British Jim Matthews case. Although this issue drew some important criticism especially from the Republicans in the USA, it has not been turned into a legal case.
The rhetoric of former UK prime minister David Cameron that British citizens who fought in the YPG ranks were perceived differently than those who fought in the ISIS ranks. In this understanding, the principle of fighting in another country is not automatically a crime and this is dependent on the nature of the organization. Since Western countries do not consider YPG as a terrorist organization, the issue of sanctions on returners remains problematic. Moreover, in some interviews in which people returning from YPG ranks to their countries have been greeted as heroes.
In conclusion, Antifa in Syria has been fed by many radical leftist groups, and partly by other radical formations, including the members of the Antifa in the West. For ending the civil war in Syria and encouraging a peaceful region, all Western powers should leave this hypocritical agenda and promulgate both YPG and Antifa as terrorist organizations that include its members and any list of terrorist organizations that provide armed training, financial support and nurture its radicalization.