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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Syrian war reaches Britain as volunteers, not soldiers, die fighting ISIL

Jac Holmes and Oliver Hall were killed battling insurgents

British citizen Jac Holmes, right, with Kurdish commanders at a front-line base in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on July 18, 2017. The Syrian-Kurd YPG militia reported on October 25 last year that Holmes, a 24-year-old from Bournemouth, had died while clearing mines following the liberation of the city from ISIL. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
British citizen Jac Holmes, right, with Kurdish commanders at a front-line base in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on July 18, 2017. The Syrian-Kurd YPG militia reported on October 25 last year that Holmes, a 24-year-old from Bournemouth, had died while clearing mines following the liberation of the city from ISIL. Hussein Malla / AP Photo

Between 2007 and 2011 the small British town of Wootton Bassett came to a halt as the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan passed through on the way home to their families. Several times a month church bells rang out, grieving relatives laid flowers atop vehicles carrying coffins and television pictures captured an uncomfortable reminder of the cost of war.

For a short moment on January 10, the British public were again confronted by images of men who died on a foreign field. This time it was not in Afghanistan, but Syria.

Jac Holmes and Oliver Hall were the two latest casualties of a much different military adventure: the unsanctioned status of volunteers in the fight against ISIL.

As a two car cortege carried their bodies out of Heathrow airport near London an elderly Kurdish woman cried out “Shahid Nameran" – “the martyrs will live forever”.

Family, fellow fighters and members of the Britain’s Kurdish community had gathered, in scenes similar to Wootton Bassett, to honour the two men - the sixth and seventh Britons to die fighting alongside the Kurds in Syria.

Holmes’ mother, Angie Blannin, had waited almost three months for her son's body.

But beyond her personal toll, the acts of such volunteers and the groups they join contain uncomfortable truths for British authorities. With hundreds of citizens having headed to Syria in recent years to join the insurgents, UK airports have been tasked with identifying them upon their return, given the potential for attacks on home soil. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, that Holmes and Hall joined in Syria has also been accused of shady affiliations. The group is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting ISIL, but it has links to the Turkish guerrilla group the PKK – an organisation whose decades long insurgency against the Turkish state, and use of suicide bombers and assassinations, has seen it designated a terror organisation in many western countries.

Holmes was killed while clearing buried improvised bombs in Raqqa, ISIL's now former stronghold, the day after the city was declared liberated.

The 24-year-old's seemingly boyish charm, and modest background - before travelling to Syria he had worked as a painter in his home town of Bournemouth - saw him become a poster boy of the Kurdish fight against ISIL. As a giant portrait of a bearded Holmes in military fatigues was unveiled at his homecoming, Ms Blannin burst into tears.

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Addressing the cortege, Mark Campbell of the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign said Holmes "desperately wanted to be involved in the operation in Raqqa, and he made it, he made it to the very end – Jac won his war", adding that "it was a tragedy, a cruel twist of history that on the very day after the liberation of Raqqa, cleaning explosives for civilians who came back, Jac should fall".

There is no doubt in the eyes of many that Holmes and Hall, a former telecommunications engineer from Portsmouth, are heroes. Neither had military experience, but they were not deterred from pushing straight to the front lines of the battle against ISIL.

Lawrence Dobney, 27, took two days off work and travelled more than 300 kilometres to pay his respects, and clutched a framed photo of the two men. He knew neither. "I just followed them online," Mr Dobney said.

Comparisons have been made between the YPG’s foreign volunteers, and the International Brigades of the Spanish civil war, made famous by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Frequent social media posts from Holmes and several other volunteers drew committed audiences. Videos of intense combat and tales of life on the front line brought the struggle of the Kurds to the attention of many.

But their fight has not been without controversy; some said they should go home, while others claimed they were merely perpetuating the war.

Macer Gifford, a former City banker from Cambridge who previously travelled to Syria to fight with the YPG, refutes the idea that volunteers are merely interfering in a foreign conflict.

"A lot of people think that the fight in Syria is someone else’s war, that it’s on the other side of the world, and it doesn’t really affect us," he told The National. "But events in Manchester, events on London Bridge - the horrible terror attacks have targeted our democracy and our children, the two most sacred things in British society. This really is our problem."

British volunteer fighter 'Macer Gifford' in Raqqa, Syria on August 19, 2017. Rick Findler / Getty Images
British volunteer fighter 'Macer Gifford' in Raqqa, Syria on August 19, 2017. Rick Findler / Getty Images

Since the international coalition against ISIL was formed in 2014 the YPG has been the West's main partner on the ground in Syria. The group often conducts ground operations with the support of American air strikes and special forces.

But some, while not directly critical of the foreign volunteers themselves, are fiercely critical of the YPG's role.

“Since the creation of the Kurdish statelet in Syria in 2013, the YPG have run a deeply authoritarian regime that has crushed internal dissent in a fashion not too dissimilar from Bashar Al Assad’s Baathist regime. The media has been censored and schools have been turned into indoctrination centres,” says Kyle Orton, a research associate at The Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank launched in 2005 with the promotion of democracy and combating of extremism as its founding principles.

Mr Orton argues that although dozens of British citizens have fought with the YPG in Syria, their reasons may have changed. "In the early days, many were just committed to fighting ISIL – a noble endeavour. However, as time has gone on the volunteers have become much more ideological," he said. "Their main contribution to the war in Syria has been to legitimise the YPG's political project."

The group's links to the PKK has also attracted the attention of the British government, which recently urged the YPG's political wing to shred any such ties.

Holmes and Hall were among around 500 citizens from Europe, North America and Australasia believed to have gone to Syria to fight with the YPG. While they do not face the same punishment as returning ISIL fighters, some have been arrested when they land home.

In 2016, Mohammed Uddin, then 29, from Essex was sentenced to nine years in prison for joining ISIL. He had been arrested at Gatwick airport upon his return from Syria in December 2014.

As of yet, none of those who have joined the YPG have been convicted of any crime relating to their membership of the Kurdish group. And while Britain advises against all travel to Syria, the YPG is not listed as a banned organisation, a matter unlikely to change in the near future.

"As things stand, there is no crime in fighting with the YPG," said Chris Scurfield, father of Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, who was killed fighting with the group in 2015.