Two months ago, a 40-year-old Frenchman with a handlebar mustache stood in front of a ragtag group of foreign fighters and recorded a defiant video statement: “We fought Daesh in Raqqa,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “Now it is the fascist Turkish state we are fighting, here in Afrin.”
A month later he was dead.
His name was Olivier Le Clainche, and he was the third of seven European and American citizens to die fighting Turkish forces in Syria—a coalition that includes dozens of jihadist militias in Aleppo province that Turkey has sponsored and directed for the last two years. Turkish forces invaded the Afrin district of Aleppo province on January 20, attacking a Kurdish militia that has numerous foreign fighters from western countries.
The slain include citizens of the United States, Britain, France, Spain, and Iceland — all member countries of NATO, the western military alliance to which Turkey also belongs. The latest casualty was Anna Campbell, a 26-year-old British woman killed March 16.
The Kurdish militia they belonged to is known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Since 2015, hundreds of male and female volunteers from six continents have traveled to Syria to join the YPG, a secular third party caught in the middle of the civil war between Sunni rebels and the Shiite regime of Bashar al-Assad. For the last three years the volunteers have been helping the YPG fight the Islamic State, but the greatest threat to the Kurds of Syria has always been Turkey, the nation to the north, which oppresses its own Kurdish citizens and is hell-bent on preventing the Syrian Kurds from gaining an independent territory along its southern border.
Three months after a YPG-led coalition liberated the city of Raqqa in October 2017, effectively putting an end to the ISIS caliphate, and just when it seemed like the long, complicated war in Syria might be winding down, Turkey commenced the invasion of Afrin with the stated aim of stamping out the YPG there. Many of the western volunteers who might have gone home after the Raqqa operation instead jumped on YPG convoys headed to defend Kurdish cities in the northwest. Unfortunately for them, Turkey’s large, professional military is a far more lethal foe than the Islamic State.
“It was all so fast and unexpected,” Alberto Garcia Ballesteros, 28, a lean and bearded Spaniard who fought ISIS in Raqqa before redeploying to the Afrin district, told The Daily Beast. He described the city of Afrin as crowded with refugees, taking heavy fire from Turkish artillery, and running low on potable water. He saw many international volunteers there, including Italians and Chinese. “They were all in pretty bad shape,” he said. “They were not ready for that kind of fight.” He said they spent several days hiding under trees, getting “decimated by helicopters.” After a week he said his unit was forced to evacuate, running a gauntlet of Turkish snipers in the hills that surround the city.
Five western volunteers have died in the Afrin district since February. That is a much higher rate of combat deaths than seen in the thirty-six month period beginning February 2015, during which time twenty-seven internationals were killed fighting the Islamic State.
The KIA in Afrin include Samuel Prada Leon, 25, from Ourense, Spain, killed February 10; Hauker Hilmarsson, a 32-year-old Icelander, killed March 14; and Jake Klipsch, 36, from Indiana, USA, killed around March 14, though the exact date and location is uncertain. Olivier Le Clainche was from the Breton region of France and died around February 19. Anna Campbell was from East Sussex in England. Turkey also killed two westerners in a November 2016 airstrike near Manbij: Michael Israel, 26, from Lodi, California, and Anton Leschek, a young German about whom little is known.
A spokesperson for the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., Celil Erdoğan, told The Daily Beast that “it is not the nationality of the terrorists that bears importance but the fact that they are terrorists.”
Most of those killed were leftists or left-leaning activists or idiosyncratic humanitarians. Unlike the other factions involved in the Syrian civil war, who split along ethnic and sectarian lines, the Kurds pride themselves on being secular progressives who are implementing a system of direct democracy based on universal participation in neighborhood councils, with every political and military office jointly held by a man and a woman.
In the video posted before he was killed, Le Clainche pledged allegiance to Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish guerrilla leader and political theorist currently serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Hilmarsson was an environmental activist well known in his country for climbing atop Iceland’s parliament and raising the flag of a supermarket chain in an act of ironic protest against capitalism. Anna Campbell, the English redhead killed a few days ago, was trained as a blacksmith and a plumber and spent time volunteering for refugees in the Calais Jungle. “In all that time she was absorbing a lot of information about the alternative political scene,” her father told The Telegraph. “She wanted to create a better world.”
The driving force behind the invasion of Afrin is Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an Islamist strongman who rants about crushing those who oppose Turkey’s national destiny in front of huge crowds waving red flags. During the ISIS rampages of 2014 and 2015, Turkish agents covertly supported the jihadists with weapons, money, training, medical care, and, most crucially, free passage in and out of Syria, according to researchers at Columbia University. Now, in Afrin, the regular Turkish army is spearheading a coalition of some twenty-four jihadist militias from the Free Syrian Army, which is dominated by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. Videos obtained from an Afrin-born journalist named Jan Ezidkhalo show long-haired, bearded militants marauding around towns seized from the YPG, shouting “takbir” and “Allah ’akbar,” firing their guns in the air, breaking a Kurdish shopkeeper’s liquor bottles, and quoting verses from the Koran. In one video, the jihadists appear to walk up to an unarmed Kurdish farmer and shoot him point blank just to steal his tractor.
On March 16, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights released a statement expressing alarm over the hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk or displaced in Afrin, the ongoing looting of Kurdish homes by invasion forces, and the severe shortage of water caused by Turkish operations.
The Kurds have called on the United States to intervene or impose a no-fly zone, pointing out that the YPG has been the U.S. military’s chief ally in the ground war against the Islamic State. Although the Pentagon maintains secrecy around the operation, there are at least twelve U.S. military bases in the Kurdish region of Syria, and in places like Kobanî, Ayn Issa, Tal Tamar, and Raqqa, scores of heavily armed Americans in uniforms without insignia ride around in trucks without license plates, accompanied by YPG escorts. The American troops on the ground number about 2,000, according to recent disclosures to Congress, but most of them are east of the Euphrates River. Turkey chose to invade Afrin because it’s west of the river, but Erdoğan says they will continue east to the city of Manbij, which is currently patrolled by Army Rangers.
Erdoğan seems to be betting that a man who’s infamous for shafting his workers—Donald Trump—won’t have a problem abandoning the Kurds now that the YPG has already done the hard work of routing the Islamic State.
It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has used the Kurds to achieve a military objective only to leave them in the lurch, at the mercy of enemies like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And Trump seems to have a special fondness for Turkey; Erdoğan is reportedly one of the world leaders he most admires. Trump and his sons have business connections in Istanbul, and Michael Flynn, his first pick for National Security Advisor, secretly accepted half a million dollars from Turkish interests before advising Trump to cut ties with the YPG.
Trump has never publicly credited the YPG’s sacrifices in beating down the Islamic State and liberating Raqqa, but has boasted of his “great friendship” with Erdoğan, whom he gives “very high marks.” To date, Trump’s State Department has done little to hinder the Turkish assault on the YPG apart from calling on the Turks to exercise “restraint.” But senior military officers, who are known to be more pro-Kurdish, owing to the close relationships American personnel have forged on the battlefield with the YPG, recently said that U.S. commandos will fight Turkish forces if they try to enter Manbij.
For the Occupy Wall Street types mixed up in this, the stakes are higher than ever. By Sunday evening, Turkish forces were in control of Afrin city, and the YPG was in full retreat. Afrin province is cut off from the main Kurdish region of Syria, where American forces are based, and the YPG is dependent on the Assad regime to allow them safe passage, which is by no means guaranteed. Ballesteros, the Spanish volunteer, told The Daily Beast that regime soldiers dragged him out of a YPG vehicle and wouldn’t let him through a checkpoint because he’s a foreigner. He had to change out of his uniform and hide in a bus full of civilians, he said.
Even if western volunteers make it out of Afrin alive, the Turkish invasion complicates their legal and diplomatic status. Many European countries have laws against taking part in foreign conflicts, and the United States has vague anti-terrorism statutes that could also apply, but with some exceptions YPG volunteers have not been prosecuted on returning to their home countries, probably because the Islamic State is almost universally regarded as a legitimate military target. Now these countries may have to decide what to do with citizens who have taken up arms against a member of NATO that maintains strategic relations with major world powers.
Though federal prosecutors have so far refrained from charging volunteers, a State Department spokesperson strongly warned American citizens against joining the YPG. “The U.S. government does not support this activity, and our ability to provide consular assistance to individuals who are injured or kidnapped, or to the families of individuals who die as a result of taking part in the conflict is extremely limited,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
That didn’t concern Mitchell Clark, a 26-year old U.S. Army veteran who fought with the YPG in Raqqa before returning home to Knoxville, Tennessee. Shortly after Turkish forces invaded Afrin, he emailed the YPG to set up the logistics of getting back into Syria. “I fought for Kurdish independence,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s hard to sit by and watch Turkey dismantle that. You feel called upon to do something.”
Josh Wilmeth, 23, from Culver City, California, fought with Clark in Raqqa and also tried to go back to defend Afrin, but the YPG told him it’s no longer possible to smuggle foreigners across the border. “I had to watch the devastation unfold through my phone,” he said. “What angers me most is that the international community did nothing.”