Written by Daphne Richemond-Barak And Victoria Barber
First published in Opinion Juris
The emerging legal framework governing foreign fighters, whose importance is set to grow, epitomizes assumptions we’ve made about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Syria. While the international community condemns the recruitment of “foreign fighters” by ISIS, it condones the recruitment of “foreign volunteers” by the Kurds.
That the international community has come together to condemn the recruitment of foreign “fighters” joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is unsurprising: Since the late 1960’s, it has repeatedly opposed the involvement of foreign individuals in conflicts to which their state of nationality is not a party. After decades of condemnation by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, an entire (albeit-ineffective) regime outlawing mercenaries emerged,primarily to stop Westerners from fighting in African conflicts. It sent a clear signal as to the illegitimacy of participating in someone else’s war.
Though it could have built on this well-established framework, which is grounded in state sovereignty, the UN chose a more restrictive and case-specific approach. It addressed exclusivelythe case of foreign fighters travelling to aid ISIS and other designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) operating in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. It purposefully did not mention mercenaries, which are covered by the broader anti-mercenary regime. Nor did it address the case of individuals who leave their home countries to join other groups fighting in Syria – or, for that matter, to fight alongside the Syrian government and its allies.
Quite the contrary: Western states have generally taken a permissive stance vis-à-vis individuals who join the ranks of the People’s Defense Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia in Syria. For more than two years, foreigners from Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK, and other countries have joined the ranks of the YPG as “volunteers” who are, more often than not, warmly and publicly received upon their return home. The UK maintains that there is a distinction between joining ISIS and joining the Kurds, pointing out that British law is designed to allow for different interpretations based on the nature of the conflict. Similarly, the Dutch government states that, while joining the YPG is not a crime in and of itself, foreign fighters can still be charged for crimes they committed in service of that membership, such as murder. Israel, too, declined to prosecute, or even reprimand, a Canadian-Israeli woman who traveled to Syria to fight as a volunteer with the YPG. This tacit acceptance of “foreign volunteers” also benefits a smaller number of Westerners travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside Christian militias like the Dwekh Nawsha in Iraq.
The discrepancy between the treatment of the “good” auxiliaries combating ISIS and that of the “bad” ones ISIS recruits sets a dangerous precedent: Why classify the YPG as an acceptable group to join, but ISIS, Hezbollah or al-Nusra as an unacceptable one?
The nature of the group plays a role. The Kurds are viewed as defending their ethnic heartland in Syria against a barbaric movement known for wanton murder and enslavement. They are longstanding inhabitants of the region, and have a vaguely defined moral claim to the Syrian northeast, though not, if we go by most of the international community, a claim to sovereignty. The Kurdish Regional Government is slightly further along the continuum, with an effectively autonomous region and its own quasi-army, the Peshmerga, fighting to defend its homeland, ethnic kin, and other minorities.
But as beleaguered as the Kurdish community in Syria and Iraq is, the logic of extending blanket legitimacy to Kurdish militia, while categorically denying it to others, is difficult to sustain at the level of international policy. Hamas and Hezbollah, like the Kurdish PKK, effectively govern territory and have evolved into organized and recognized bodies. Yet foreign participation in one of these groups is unlikely to be regarded as acceptable.
Assuming we draw the line along the state/non-state divide, which is the simplest, we should feel comfortable with the involvement of foreigners on either side of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Both can be regarded as joining forces with a sovereign government, whether Ukrainian nationalists from outside the country or Russian separatists and ethnic kin backed by the Russian government. Yet international condemnation came down against both sides as diaspora populations volunteered to fight. This suggests that the state/nonstate divide is not, in and of itself, sufficient to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of intervention.
The distinction could instead come from the conduct of the organizations, allowing volunteers to join groups that act within the bounds of international law and respect human rights. This distinction is appealing, particularly given ISIS’ ruthless violence, but it is a poor barometer. Most groups involved in the Syrian civil war have been shown to commit war crimes, even if ISIS is in a category of its own. The YPG has itself been accused of using child soldiers and carrying out ethnic cleansing in the areas it controls. Khorasan, al-Nusra, and the Sunni Islamic militias are generally viewed as non-compliant with the laws of war, as are Syrian government-allied auxiliaries such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militia. But “volunteering” for these latter groups has not drawn similar condemnation.
Alternatively, we might be tempted to regard volunteering as acceptable when the volunteer shares some kind of ethnic, religious or ideological roots with the group. This, however, could justify virtually any foreign participation in any conflict – particularly in Syria, where neither foreign fighters nor foreign volunteers are thought to receive any meaningful monetary compensation. Clearly, they must be joining the fight because they share some kind of ethnic, religious, or ideological affinity with a party to the conflict. This rationale, moreover, could apply to ISIS as much as the YPG. Taking the Ukrainian conflict again as an example, the same considerations would apply: ethnic Russians and Ukrainians travelling to Ukraine identify with the separatists and nationalists, respectively. A criterion relating to shared ethnic, religious, or ideological roots is thus unhelpful in delineating the contours of legitimate foreign intervention.
The upshot of this is that none of the suggested criteria provide a satisfactory justification for why states – and, for that matter, international law – view joining the YPG as acceptable, but joining ISIS (or al-Nusra) as reprehensible. This lack of regularity undermines existing policies, as it gives the impression that the distinction is based on ideology, which is a dangerous precedent to set. This development is especially alarming given that the Western-backed coalition (including Russia’s) objectives may not align with those of the YPG’s in the long-run. Kurdish territorial ambitions in a fragmented Iraq and Syria are likely to increase – not diminish – with battlefield success, pitting them against the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran once the guns fall silent.
Should such a change of affinity occur in the fight against ISIS, it could undermine the legitimacy of the emerging regulatory framework governing foreign fighters and make for awkward moments. The UK government experienced some embarrassment when the prosecution of a Swedish national collapsed after it emerged that the group he had joined in Syria was receiving covert support from the British government itself.
Ultimately, the treatment of Western foreign fighters joining the YPG (while it may appeal to our present sympathies) is not as straightforward as many states have made it seem. In the absence of objective criteria, the Security Council’s strong and welcome measures against foreign fighters could be undermined. In the years to come, as Syria re-constitutes itself or further fragments into rump ethnic states, we may look back at today’s auxiliaries and ask ourselves with some confusion who were the “foreign volunteers” and who were the “foreign fighters” in Syria’s horrific civil war.