The Westerners had little time to react after the Trump administration said Oct. 6 that it would not stand in the way of the Turkish offensive, which targeted Kurdish militias that partnered with the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State. The Turkish military launched its offensive a few days later, prompting Trump to order the withdrawal of all 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria as violence spiraled out of control.
On Thursday, Vice President Pence announced an agreement in which Turkey would stop its offensive for five days while the United States helps facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from a key border area near Turkey. President Trump hailed the deal as a win, but some members of Congress and security analysts said it could amount to a second betrayal of the Kurds if it does not guarantee their safety.
Thomas McClure, a British volunteer with the Syrian Kurds, said it is “really hard to say” how many Westerners are still living in Syrian Kurdish enclaves, but estimated it could be more than 100. Some are still part of the Kurdish militias, he said, and scores of others provide medical care and carry out other tasks.
“I haven’t heard of anyone trying to leave now,” said McClure, who said he has been in northern Syria for about 18 months, mostly answering questions from the media. “Everyone is here with the knowledge that the situation can change fast, and it can go downhill fast, and that it’s important to not just leave when things get bad. Our work here is needed.”
The situation is especially complicated because of Turkey’s status as a NATO ally.
Westerners who traveled to Syria to fight against the Islamic State as civilians typically joined the People’s Protection Units, Syrian Kurdish units commonly known as the YPG. They formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces that partnered with the United States in its counterterrorism campaign in Syria.
However, the YPG also has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Turkish group that is known as the PKK and labeled a terrorist organization by both the Turkish and U.S. governments. The United States has drawn a distinction between the YPG and the PKK, but Turkish leaders do not and consider the Kurds a security threat at their southern border.
U.S. officials warn American citizens that they are subject to prosecution if they become enemy combatants abroad. But no U.S. citizen has been charged with a crime for joining the YPG, which has seen more than 10,000 of its fighters killed against the Islamic State. Nearly a dozen American civilians have been killed while fighting alongside the YPG, the group has said.
American volunteers have long considered the lack of prosecution to be tacit acceptance, if not approval, of their actions. But the situation has grown more dicey as Turkey has sought to clear Kurdish forces from northern Syria, pitting a NATO ally against a close U.S. counterterrorism partner.
Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, said each situation is “evaluated on its individual facts and circumstances.” However, he said, traveling abroad to take up arms in a foreign group is “a very bad idea, and we strongly discourage it.”
The State Department said in a statement that it warns private citizens against traveling to Syria to engage in combat and that those who do so face kidnapping, injury or death.
“The U.S. government does not support this activity, and our ability to provide consular assistance to individuals who are arrested, injured or kidnapped, or to the families of individuals, is extremely limited,” the statement said.
River O’Mahoney Hagg, a Californian who fought alongside the YPG in 2016 while recording video for a documentary, expressed frustration with the increasingly dire situation the Kurds have faced, including the execution of civilians by pro-Turkish forces. He worked in a medical unit before returning home, treating Kurdish fighters and civilians alike.
With Turkey’s assault on northern Syria, Hagg said, the situation on the ground has changed. He estimated that about 100 Western volunteers have assisted the YPG over the past few years.
“I want to cry,” he said. “I want to yell. I want to kick a hole in the wall. I can’t go fight Turkey. I can’t go. It’s a NATO country. I can’t go pick up arms against a NATO country. American volunteers can’t go and help our friends.”
A Canadian friend of his that is still in northern Syria reached out a few days ago with a message for her mother, he said.
“She says to me, ‘Tell my mom that I love her and that it was worth it,’ ” Hagg said, choking up. “It’s messed up, right? To hear that when it’s my own president who’s betraying these people!”
Hanna Bohman, a former volunteer from Canada who has returned from northern Syria, criticized Trump for abandoning the Kurdish forces. While the coalition against the Islamic State has often been described as U.S.-led, she said, it actually has been led on the ground in Syria by Kurdish fighters.
Bohman said many of the women she fought alongside in the all-women Kurdish unit known as the YPJ have been killed in the past few years. Those who are alive do not want to leave.
“I keep telling them: ‘Try to get out of there,’ ” she said. “But they say, ‘This is our land. We can’t run away from this.’ ”
Susan Shirley, whose son Levi was killed as a member of the YPG in 2016, said a small, but tightknit group of Westerners who joined the YPG and their families have stayed in touch. They have watched the decisions made about northern Syria this month with horror, she said.
“Everything they fought for, was it for nothing?” she asked. “I developed a lot of respect for the Kurdish people after Levi was killed, and I did my own research. Rojava is almost like this impossible dream that came true in a part of the world where it couldn’t happen, but it did. To see that just snuffed out like this is hard — and it’s on our watch.”