Western Volunteer Fighters With Kurdish Militias
"There is a need in some instances for governments to clarify the legal situation surrounding anti-ISIS foreign fighters."Law enforcement agencies of various Western nations whose nationals have travelled informally, of their own volition to Syria and Iraq to fight against Islamic State, joining Kurdish forces in an effort to give military aid find themselves absent an official legal position on how official sources will react when faced with returning volunteer fighters. And nor do those hundreds of Western anti-ISIL fighters on their return back home from a stint of volunteerism, really know how they will be received.
"All governments should be explicit in their communications around anti-ISIS foreign fighters to ensure the legal position and possible sanctions are clearly set out. Law-enforcement measures and prosecutions then need to be applied consistently and proportionately."
"Social networks should ensure they are aware of not only the various groups that are using their networks or platforms [inviting recruitment of anti-ISIS foreign fighters]. but also what they are using them for, and consider whether any of their activities violate their terms of service."
"Legality can hinge on the state's current allegiances in the relevant conflict. The complexity of the war in Syria and Iraq creates a situation whereby it is not always clear under what circumstances anti-ISIS fighters could face legal sanctions."
"[Governments] appear reluctant to state clearly [whether the hundreds of Western anti-ISIL fighters, many of them military veterans, have broken any national laws]."
Study, The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, London, United Kingdom
Some Western governments, like the government of Canada, attempt to discourage Canadians from becoming involved in fighting ISIL alongside Kurdish militias, pointing out that if they want to fight, they should become involved through the Canadian military. That if they are abroad in an unofficial capacity as fighters, it is not possible for Canada to come to their aid, if needed. Canada has positioned members of its military in Iraq and in Syria as military-technique trainers of the Kurds.
But the government has taken no steps to attempt to restrain volunteers from travelling abroad. Some returnees have been questioned by the RCMP, nothing more. It becomes a criminal issue when Canadian nationals return from abroad after having fought with the Islamic State, though there is no formal protocol to apprehend such returnees other than to try to stop them from returning again to fight with ISIL They are, however, subject to potential arrest on return.
Canadian volunteers represent roughly five percent of the sample examined by the British study, of 300 anti-ISIL combatants in the Middle East. Over a third of the total were Americans, 14 percent British, eight percent German, and six percent French, while roughly 31 percent represented national military veterans. Of those involved, one third joined the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, another one-fifth established themselves with Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq.
Alex Moreau/Facebook Alex Moreau, left, recently returned to Vancouver following seven months with the Kurdish YPG militia.
Some Canadian Forces veterans, feeling a sense of frustration that their country has opted for a limited military role against the ultimate terrorist group in the Middle East, felt personally compelled by conscience to volunteer. One all-Western unit of volunteers with the YPG distributed first-aid kits on the front lines in Syria, while treating gunfire and explosives casualties, and training locals how to provide emergency medical care.
The report's recommendations included that governments "highlight the state's existing work on the ground, the potential dangers that anti-ISIS foreign fighters face, and the fact that many local groups explicitly ask foreigners not to come". That rejection by some groups of rebels supported by the U.S., was occasioned by the American military expressing their unease at the presence of Western volunteers not attached to any official Western military sources, fighting alongside the rebels.
The prospect of accidental deaths occurring in possible confrontations where the deaths of such Western volunteers might bring bad publicity to the American military in a complex enough situation with a multitude of actors, led to the U.S. military persuading those rebel groups dependent upon their support to reluctantly take the position they would no longer welcome Western volunteer fighters, in favour of toeing the American line.