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Foreigners join up to fight Islamic State

By Reuters in Derik, Syria | China Daily | Updated: 2015-01-06 07:47

Foreigners join up to fight Islamic State

A fighter from the Shiite Kata'ib Imam Ali militia backs up fellow militiamen as they search a house after taking control of a village from Islamic State extremists on the outskirts of Dhuluiya, north of Baghdad, on Dec 29.  Provided By Reuters

A few dozen Westerners become 'freedom fighters' with Syrian Kurdish armed faction

While illegally crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border, Canadian Peter Douglas was adamant that his incursion was for humanitarian reasons - to help the people of Syria.

Douglas is one of a growing band of foreigners to dodge authorities and join the fight against Islamic State militants who have killed thousands and taken swaths of Iraq and Syria, declaring a caliphate in territory under their control.

Many of these fighters argue they are there for humanitarian reasons but they say their decision to take up arms to fight for the Syrian people will not be viewed as such by some.

"I want to fight the IS, although it might be the last thing I do," said Douglas, 66, from Vancouver, as he prepared to board a boat crossing a stretch of the Tigris River.

"I know I have 10 years to live before I will start to develop dementia or have a stroke so I wanted to do something good," he added, although he acknowledged that taking up arms was new on the list of jobs and occupations he has previously pursued.

So far an estimated few dozen Westerners have joined Kurdish fighters battling the IS in northern Syria, including US citizens, Canadians, Germans and Britons.

The Syrian Kurdish armed faction known as the YPG has not released official numbers confirming foreign or "freedom fighters", and academics say it's hard to assess the total.

But the number pales compared to an estimated 16,000 fighters from about 90 countries who have joined Islamic State since 2012, according to US Department of State figures.

The United Nations has warned that extremist groups in Syria and Iraq are recruiting foreigners on an "unprecedented scale" and with a commitment to jihad who could "form the core of a new diaspora" and be a threat for years to come.

Diverse motives

Western governments are monitoring foreign fighters but law enforcement agencies are acting differently toward those joining IS or those linking up with the Kurdish resistance whose motivations are far more diverse.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear there is a fundamental difference between fighting for the Kurds and Islamic State. British law stipulates fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offense and depends on circumstances.

Two British military veterans, Jamie Read and James Hughes, returned to England last month after several months with the YPG, saying they were fighting for "humanitarian purposes", and no action has been taken against them on their return.

They signed up outraged by a series of chilling videos showing the murders of two US journalists, a US aid worker and two British aid workers and by the plight of millions of Syrians caught between Islamic State and government forces.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war which began in 2011.

"We went there to help innocent people and to document the YPG struggle against IS," said Hughes, 26, who spent five years in the British army.

"We had a warm welcome home. Everybody thought we were heroes. They were proud of us. I also received hundreds of messages of people wanting to join the YPG," he said, adding he planned to return to Syria in the coming months.

Still, many foreign YPG fighters are concerned about legal repercussions when they return home, so they seek to stay anonymous.

"We might get in trouble with our governments," said one US veteran who ensured all his financial and legal affairs were in order before heading to Rojava, the area controlled by the YPG in Syria.

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