What is attracting anarchists to Syria?

What is attracting anarchists to Syria?
Comment: Kurdish attempts to carve out a self-governing territory in northern Syria are attracting western leftists - and the ire of Turkey and Syria's opposition in exile.
6 min read
29 Jul, 2017
Robert Grodt's funeral was held on July 27 [Photo: YPG/Twitter]

Once a volunteer medic for the Occupy Wall Street movement, 28-year-old Robert Grodt, an American anarchist, travelled to Syria last February to join the Kurdish People's Protection Units, better known as the YPG, in their fight against the Islamic State group. 

In a video posted by the Kurdish militia, Grodt explained why he left his five-year-old daughter and the rest of his family.

"My reasons for joining the YPG were to help the Kurdish people in their struggle for autonomy within Syria and elsewhere. Also to do my best to be able to fight [IS] and help create a more secure world," he said.

He went on to apologise to his daughter for not being there with her. 

On July 6, the YPG announced that Grodt had been killed on the outskirts of Raqqa, the Islamic State group's stronghold in northern Syria. Along with Grodt, another American, 29-year-old Nicholas Alan Warden, was also killed. Precise details of their deaths are unknown, but according to the YPG, the deaths were the result of the militant group's operations to capture Raqqa.

Grodt and Warden are two of about a dozen US casualties in Syria in the war against IS. It is unknown how many US citizens are fighting in Syria, but more than 100 have been estimated to have taken up arms there.

It can be hard to imagine what might motivate someone to leave their life in the US behind and join this fight. For these fighters, however, the motivation is clear.

"They're our anarchist comrades," one US fighter, named Hristo, told The Village Voice. "I feel it's my obligation to go aid them."

Hristo and his friend, Guy, snuck into Syria through Iraq to join the YPG in Rojava.

Analysis: What does the future hold for Syria's Kurds?

Rojava is a YPG stronghold across much of northern Syria, and the militants have been making advances on IS as they move towards the nearby city of Raqqa, a city they plan to soon overtake.

"My reasons for joining the YPG I think are like everyone else's,"said Luke Rutter, a British man who also lost his life in the July 6 attack on Raqqa. "I think the YPG, they stand for the best opportunity for peace that this region might have."

It's not like it was before when you'd face them in battles... Now, it's all mines and snipers. And there's nothing you can do about mines

Rutter lied to his family, saying he was joining the French Foreign Legion, and snuck out of the country to join the YPG. In a video posted by the group, Rutter apologised to his family for lying about where he was going - but said he didn't "regret my decision and I hope that you respect it".

Kimberly Taylor, a British woman fighting as part of the YPG said IS hardly fights anymore

"It's not like it was before when you'd face them in battles," she said. "Now, it's all mines and snipers. And there's nothing you can do about mines. They tie five or six together so when someone steps on one they explode in a chain reaction, taking out at least half the group. That's when they attack to try and pick off the rest. It sounds like that's what happened to Luke's unit. We've seen too many die and get injured like that in our brigade."

Read more: Taking Raqqa with Pride - 'Queer militia' raises
gay rainbow flag in Islamic State group's Syria stronghold

While not all the fighters who leave the US for a chance to battle IS are anarchists, the YPG does seem to have a certain international appeal among some leftists.

YPG calls their ideology "anarcho-feminist" and teaches it as part of their month-long training course before fighters are sent into battle.

It's an ideology for which these fighters are willing to die. The YPG's professed message of equality and revolution is coupled with what is being created in Rojava - in many ways, a leftist's dream. The quasi-autonomous region carved out of northern Syria claims to be the embodiment of anarchism in practice.

Decision-making focuses on direct democracy that works from the bottom up. The "Constitution of Rojava" is based on a social contract that provides residents with both gender and religious freedom.

But the YPG has also been heavily criticised as self-interested. Its fight to gain and hold expanses of territory has seen a tacit alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops in northern Aleppo, among other places.

The Syrian opposition in exile also opposes the idea of federalism in Syria, or any potential break-up into autonomous ethnically divided regions. And Turkey is feverishly anxious over the emergence of another empowered, armed Kurdish region on its southern border.


That said, with the progress made by Syria's Kurds in advancing equality in the Middle East as well as their massive achievements fighting against the fascism of IS - if not that of Assad - it is easy to see what would draw these Americans and others to leave the comfort of their home countries to fight for people they don't know.

After all, this is the goal of most leftist ideologies - to create worldwide revolutionary spirit in which "Rojavas" are created in every country.

Read more: Trump 'backs Kurds for Raqqa assault' despite Turkish fears

The YPG is the perfect example of this revolutionary spirit. Not only are they fighting to defend their fellow Kurds, they are fighting to free all Syrian people from the grip of IS and other jihadist forces. These foreign fighters have found a cause they deem worthy enough to give their lives for.

For these fighters, there can be no greater sacrifice. To lay down their lives to create what they hope will be a better world when these wars end. A better world not only for the people of Syria but for the world as a whole. They are trying to lead by example.

He was there helping oppressed people, his lifelong passion... I will always remember Rob for his commitment to his ideals

Grodt's friends and family praised his bravery and commitment to the cause.

"Rob felt strongly enough that he was willing to risk and ultimately give his life," Ronald L Kuby, a civil rights lawyer who met Grodt at the Occupy Protests told the New York Times. "It was a powerful vision."

"He was there helping oppressed people, his lifelong passion," Elizabeth Clark, a relative of Grodt, wrote on Facebook. "I will always remember Rob for his commitment to his ideals."

Grodt's mother said her son's decision to fight IS in Syria was an "extension of his life" that he spent fighting for the oppressed.

Once one understands the motivations of these fighters, it becomes harder to criticise their choice to leave their families behind and sacrifice their lives for what they believe is the greater good. These soldiers, like many volunteers through history drawn to take up arms for ideological causes, believe their martyrdom is a symbol of freedom, of sacrifice, and of the utmost kindness and solidarity of the human spirit.

Dan Arel is a political activist, award-winning journalist and the author of The Secular Activist; and Parenting Without God. 

Follow him on Twitter: @danarel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.