A former British soldier who fought alongside the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Syria has been detained on terrorism charges, the Independent, has reported. James Matthews, 43, has been ordered to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 14 February to be formally accused of attending a “place used for terrorist training”. Matthews is originally from Stoke-on-Trent and is one of dozens of Britons who have travelled to Syria to fight alongside US-backed Kurdish forces against Daesh.
The YPG is an offshoot of the designated terror organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); it makes up the majority of the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has been accused of numerous human rights violations in Iraq and Syria, including revenge attacks against civilians in former Daesh-held territories. Amnesty International is one of several NGOs that have recorded the SDF committing war crimes, including the forced displacement of residents, razing homes to the ground, extrajudicial killings and the use of child soldiers.
Matthews was teaching English to military cadets in Saudi Arabia when he decided to join the YPG and was among three British volunteers featured in a documentary on British fighters in Syria in 2015. He was also one of several fighters who penned an open letter to the British government following the Westminster terror attack last March, calling for Britain to continue its support for the SDF to defeat Daesh.
Foreign fighters from the US and Europe have been free to join the SDF and fight alongside Kurdish forces, as well as return home, despite the YPG being a recognised affiliate of a terrorist organisation. Seven British volunteers with the YPG have been killed abroad; 24-year-old Ollie Hall from Portsmouth was killed by a blast in November.
Fellow British YPG fighters have condemned the decision to prosecute Matthews. Former British army veteran Joshua Molloy took to Twitter, calling the charges “unfair” given that the SDF is Britain’s “partner on the ground”.
Jim is being unfairly persecuted. What kind of message does this send to the SDF? The UK government charges a citizen with terror offences for fighting alongside a partner on the ground against IS. https://t.co/ZIoeg2XRfS
— Joshua Farrell-Molloy (@joshmolloy101) February 7, 2018
Charlie Qerecox from Bristol, who fought with the YPG in Raqqa between April and November last year, told MEMO that the charges were a “travesty” and that Matthews was “a hero” who had “stopped genocide”. He argued that the PKK is only listed as a terrorist group because Turkey pushed for it. “The affiliation… is not directly together or part of the same organisation,” he insisted. The PKK is said to have been responsible for killed over 40,000 people in Turkey over the past 30 years.
The right-wing Henry Jackson Society claimed that ex-YPG fighters returning to Britain pose a security risk and could perpetrate lone-wolf attacks. “That is ludicrous,” responded Qerecox. “They [the British government] are really grasping at straws in an attempt to demonise the YPG and I think this is a lot less about whether he poses any threat to anyone than about the current government’s attempts to befriend Turkey.”
Macer Gifford, who fought alongside the YPG for three years and returned to Cambridgeshire in December, spoke to MEMO of his surprise at the charges, but said that he did not think that they would stand up in court. “I am very confident that this is going to be thrown out. At the end of the day… the legal perspective is incredibly grey, the moral perspective is incredibly clear and public opinion is very much behind Jim [Matthews].”
When questioned about the affirmed links between the YPG and the PKK, Gifford said that the YPG had a different command structure to the terrorist group and a different strategy in the region. “They are not a threat to Turkey, they have no intention of throwing away their reputation on the world stage by doing anything like attacking Turkey or supplying weapons that they’ve got to any other Kurdish group,” he claimed. “The links are that people who were formerly members of the PKK left the mountain, they’ve taken off their PKK uniforms and put on the YPG uniforms. That is almost certainly true. This then poses the question, when do you stop being a terrorist if you move away from one group and join another?”
Whilst Britons fighting alongside the YPG are free to do so, those who seek to join other sides in the Syrian conflict have not faced the same treatment. When asked whether this is hypocritical, Gifford asserted that the Free Syrian Army and other opposition factions are “full of jihadis” and that those who went to join them were largely “a threat to life in the United Kingdom” and should face terrorism charges in court.
The British government has echoed such sentiments, suggesting controversially in November that British fighters be stripped of their citizenship. A month later the Secretary of State for Defence called for British citizens fighting with Daesh to be hunted down and killed. The policy was later criticised by terror watchdogs and human rights groups, who have accused the minister of advocating “war crimes”.
Gifford also supported probes into the actions of aid workers, after the UK stripped two Britons of their citizenship for providing urgent humanitarian relief in the opposition-held territories around Idlib last month, although they deny having links with any militant groups. “If an aid worker has relied on terrorists or supported them in any way,” he said, “they should be considered the same as the fighters.” Due legal process should take place, though, he added.
The US backing for Kurdish forces has created tension with Turkey. The PKK has launched terrorist attacks against Turkey for the past three decades and its intention to establish a federal state in northern Syria has prompted Ankara’s intervention since 2016.
Last month, Turkey launched an air and ground offensive as part of Operation Olive Branch in response to the US announcing its intention to establish a permanent, 30,000 strong force to patrol the Turkish-Syria border, much of which would be made up of SDF fighters. The offensive has opened a new front in the long-running civil war. US, British and German volunteers have been keen to join the fight against NATO member Turkey, with SDF officials reporting that many foreign fighters had requested to be deployed to the northern province of Afrin.