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The Secular Foreign Fighters of the West in Syria

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) operates under the names of the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units in Syria. The PKK is registered as a terrorist group by most western governments, the European Union and Turkey, where it originated as a separatist organization. Nonetheless, the YPG has been the partner of the United States-led coalition in Syria against the ISIS. The strengthening of the YPG/PKK and its political messaging has brought in a flow of western foreign fighters. Some of these fighters are now returning to their homelands with indications that they are bringing security problems with them.

The Secular Foreign Fighters of the West in Syria
A group of international foreign fighters, mostly from Western countries, pose for a photo on April 16, 2015, in the outskirts of the northwestern Syrian town of Tal Tamr, as they fight alongside YPG. UYGAR ÖNDER ŞİMŞEK / AFP / Getty Images

The movement of citizens to join Islamist groups in Syria has been a serious security concern for western governments. This has been especially so since late 2015, when 130 people were slaughtered in one evening in Paris by operatives of ISIS, “nearly all” of whom were European citizens who re-entered Europe with forged Syrian passports, having “infiltrated the refugee flow.”1 There was considerable fear that the collapse of ISIS’s territorial holdings, its so-called caliphate, would result in a renewed wave of returnee jihadists causing havoc on European streets, though this has not so far materialized.2

The stretching of European security agencies by ISIS’s networks,3 the subsequent political focus on the jihadists, and geopolitical developments as the western states mobilized to attack ISIS at its core was the context in which a flow of western citizens joining another terrorist organization in Syria, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was de-prioritized. As Syria’s war moves into a new phase, those decisions begin to look more questionable.

 

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