At this point in Syria's conflict, a British accent in Syria or Iraq may not seem like a huge surprise: It's been estimated that about 500 British citizens are fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Some, such as "Jihadi John," have become the subject of a grim media fascination.
But this weekend, many British readers were surprised by a report in the Observer that two young men from Britain had traveled to Syria to fight against the Islamic State.
James Hughes from Reading and Jamie Read from Lanarkshire are just two of a number of Westerners who have headed there to fight with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG. The news of their journey follows the growing popularity of "The Lions of Rojava," a Facebook page was set up last month.
The page calls for foreigners to come and join the fight against the Islamic State. Rojava means "the West" in Kurdish, indicating the fighters are based in Western Kurdistan or Syrian Kurdistan. There are signs the recruitment effort may be working. On the The Lions of Rojava Facebook page are a number of photographs that claim to show groups of Western fighters working with the YPG.
It's a popular Facebook page, with more than 20,000 likes. Every photo posted receives dozens of messages of support and many fans post their own requests to join. "I'm ready any time, I'm a former Italian military police," one user from London writes. "Please i'm from Ghana-West Africa and I would love to join the fight against ISIL," another Facebook user writes, using an acronym that refers to the Islamic State.
Hughes and Read are believed to have been recruited to fight by an American, Jordan Matson. Matson is a 28-year-old Army veteran from Wisconsin who has been with Kurdish fighters for months. "I got sick of giving online sympathy," Matson told USA Today in October. "Five minutes of lip service does nothing." He has received a fair amount of press and seems happy to be the public face of Westerners fighting with Kurdish forces. On Facebook he has thousands of followers and is happy to pose for the camera.
Matson, who was reportedly wounded soon after he entered Syria, has taken it upon himself to help recruit foreigners to fight the Islamic State. "I've had ex-military ask from Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, you name it. They've been asking," Matson told CNN. On his Facebook page, he points Westerners towards the The Lions of Rojava page, which he says is the "official recruitment page of the YPG."
Images posted to Twitter last week appeared to show Maston, Huges and Read together. Maston told the Observer that he was indeed with them. “U can travel to Rojava n meet them," the American told the British newspaper.
Unlike other Westerners who are reported to have traveled to join the Kurds, including a German biker gang and a British teenage girl, Hughes and Read do not appear to have a link to the Kurdish community. Hughes was in the British Army until recently and served in Afghanistan. The Observer reports that Read's Facebook page says he trained with the French army (it appears that Read has since deleted his profile). Their decision to travel to Syria seems to have been prompted by stories about the plight of Kobane, a Kurdish city in the country's north that has faced an Islamic State siege.
To their supporters, the Lions of Rojava may seem like a modern-day version of the International Brigades that fought against the Falangist forces in the Spanish civil war. The sudden attention given to pair has caused some backlash, however. Graham Penrose, who says he is acting as a spokesperson for Hughes and Read, had released statements condemning the descriptions of the British pair as mercenaries. "They are normal everyday people who are doing an extraordinary thing," Penrose wrote. Hughes himself has told the BBC that there was "no factual evidence" to support any claims they were being paid to fight.
However, the journeys of Hughes and Read and any others like them may present a problem for Britain. While David Cameron has said that there is a "fundamental difference" in fighting with the Islamic State and fighting with Kurdish forces, statements released by the British Home Office in September urged people not to go and join the fight themselves, warning that they could face charges. "However, UK law makes provisions to deal with different conflicts in different ways - fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offence but will depend on the nature of the conflict and the individual's own activities," the statement added.
There's another factor also worth noting: The YPG is also linked to the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known by its acronym, PKK. And despite the global sympathy for the various Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State, the PKK is still considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.