The Students and Syria – Fighting ISIS from the Uni Campus

One of the Belden campaign team’s posters

George Marsden
Writer

The Brace Belden team fought a spirited campaign during the Rector election, but what do we do we support when we lionise Western volunteers in Syria?

Last March saw the election of Aamer Anwar as Rector of the University of Glasgow. Among the other contenders was an American named Brace Belden, formerly PissPigGrandad on Twitter (his account has now been permanently suspended): he won a measly 236 votes to Anwar’s 4458 but, despite his ultimate failure, he made a noticeable splash among the left at Glasgow, and his support was no paltry thing.
Belden stood out from the other names on the ballot because of his unusual story. A native San Franciscan, he spent a large part of his youth in menial jobs, working as a florist and playing in a punk-rock band, but in 2016 he joined the YPG (the People’s Protection Units) and left to fight with the Kurds against the Islamic State in Northern Syria. Sir Vince Cable may have the odd droll parliamentary anecdote, and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos can certainly court controversy, but Belden rather takes the biscuit.

Belden was a combatant in a war with pressing regional and international consequences, and his nominators were doing their utmost in their capacity as students to support his and/or his movement’s aims. By decidedly coming down in support of one side in this conflict, they involve themselves through the solidarity movement with the Kurdish cause and become linked (however indirectly) with western civilian involvement in Syria in general, and the Rojavan revolution in particular. The ethics of this involvement is worth examining.

Enough research can be never be done on this conflict and it is worth familiarising oneself with the full details; this can only be a brief sketch and must leave much unsaid. As a member of the YPG, Brace Belden fought alongside other western volunteers in Northern Syria (an area frequently known as Rojava) against Isis. In their wake they set up the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a state within the borders of the Syrian Arab Republic that gained de facto autonomy in 2012. A multi-ethnic region, the Rojavan autonomous state established its own, progressive constitution based on direct democracy, secularism and sexual equality; it’s this that has been called the “Rojavan Revolution”. This progressive constitution seems to have attracted support from students at Glasgow and could be key to understanding the precise nature of their involvement with the solidarity movement. It must be noted that the aim of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is not the creation of a fully independent nation state separate from Damascus; rather, they oppose Isis and the Assad regime which commands the government forces and wish to extend their model of decentralised, federal socialism to the rest of Syria. This distinct aim is particularly important.

The Left at Glasgow appears to have supported Belden (and by extension the Rojavan revolution) because of their shared values and political aspirations. Here we encounter the first of many dilemmas that should confront people who decide to stake a claim in far-off wars. A number of political parties and militias are at war with Isis in Iraq and Syria; they range from the radically left-wing YPG, to the more robustly nationalist Peshmerga, who fight for Kurdish self-determination. Other opponents include the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda splinter group, who disagree with Isis over the particular kind of medieval savagery God intended for his children. It’s therefore possible to say that the students at Glasgow who support the Rojavan revolution do so, first and foremost, in solidarity with their Kurdish comrades. There is nothing glib in this last statement: agree with them or not, the students who support the cause for this reason are at least sincere when they describe themselves as international socialists working for world revolution.

But the dilemma is this: on what grounds can we, sitting comfortably thousands of miles away, declare support for a side in a war that we have no immediate involvement with? Groups such as Glasgow Marxists have done so on very particular grounds: by endorsing Brace Belden they don’t just oppose Isis, they support the Rojavan revolution as well. If heaping up the bodies of jihadists was the criterion for a rectorship nomination, then both Assad and Putin would have been better candidates. Therefore, it appears that the YPG’s egalitarianism was what was chiefly admired.

I managed to ask a few questions to an anonymous student involved with the Brace Belden campaign. When I asked if he would have supported Belden and other western volunteers if their objective was the creation of a pro-American, independent Kurdish state instead of a socialist, semi-autonomous region of Syria, his answer was an unequivocal “absolutely not”. He also remarked that “within our campaign, I think there was an insufficient focus on socialism” – it would seem that the shared political values of the YPG fighters and student left at Glasgow was a leading motivation for his support, and some like my interviewee even found that those values were not emphasised enough in the campaign material. Here we may pause to wonder if their support for just the YPG is prudent, or overly meticulous.

Given that Isis poses a potent threat to civilisation in the Middle East, we may have to consider every means of resistance. This could mean that a broad church approach might be more desirable. Iraqis and Syrians don’t have the luxury of picking fights; they happen in their streets and it’s them who suffer. If we take this threat seriously, should the international focus then be on the destruction of a ruthless enemy instead of the extension of progressive values into new territory? This may however take us to unwelcome conclusions: in reality, a “broad church approach” probably means turning a blind eye to the actions of criminals like Putin and Assad as long the Islamist threat is exterminated. Seen in this light, the decision of Glasgow Marxists and other Belden supporters to limit their support for groups who share their values might appear wise: after all, one could argue that by giving endorsement one incurs at least some responsibility for the endorsee’s actions. For most people (not just those on the student left), the notion of Syria enduring a civil war only to return to tyranny is too cruel a prospect to dwell on. Prudent or overly meticulous, the rights and wrongs of student support for anti-Islamic State volunteers remain unclear.

The Belden campaigner I questioned also suggested that there was a fear the YPG and the wider Rojavan Revolution could “be used by Washington” to further the United States’ foreign policy objectives. He remains an admirer of the struggle in Northern Syria; what worries him is the American incursion into the conflict and the YPG being steered by what he terms “imperialistic” ambitions. He fears a kind of Balkanisation of Syria, through perversion of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s goal of a federal country into calls for Rojavan independence, or a Libya-like situation in which the whole country implodes. Indeed, we know from an article published on 17 August by Reuters that the Syrian Democratic Forces (of which the YPG is a member) have speculated American forces may stay in Syria for “decades”. Something such as this should dampen the spirit of even the most fervent Belden supporter. Even with all the best intentions a man can muster, it’s a big possibility that endorsing western volunteers may be contributing to a future the student left would rather see avoided.

The difficulty here of course is one of information. The view from Gilmorehill may look clear, but we’re talking about a conflict we don’t fully understand. If it transpires that the left’s ends do not materialise, we have good grounds to question not only the efficacy of western civilian intervention in Iraq and Syria but its moral foundations as well. America and Russia have kept a close eye on this war, so it’s probably naïve to think its termination won’t conform to their foreign policy designs. Civilian boots on the ground, then, and the voices supporting them, could well be appeasing them, instead of delivering the Middle East from its present horrors.

We should keep these considerations with us, but they might be obscuring the central motivation for supporting fighters in a faraway war. When asked if he would given any thought to joining the YPG, my interviewee replied “yes” but hadn’t because he would “have to be comfortable with the thought of dying”. Nothing surprising there. What this reveals is a profoundly humanistic concern for one’s fellow man that could spur one to dying for Kurds and Arabs they have never met. Indeed, it already has. Higher than the moral parsing that convinces people to support a side in a foreign war are those pangs of sympathy that also excited people into marching for the Vietnamese in the 60s and even to bleed for Spain in the 30s. Whatever the ethics here, what’s undeniable is the claim these wars have on the human breast. Right or wrong, partiality in foreign conflicts will continue as a fact of human life.