The reported death of another Australian fighting for the Kurdish YPG is sad news. But he was engaged in illegal activity, a point made clear by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Some argue that, given the circumstances surrounding the battle against IS, we should treat such volunteers differently to other foreign fighters. At first glance this looks like an appealing argument. But the conflict in Syria is much more complex than people who hold this view acknowledge. Before others come out in support of the actions of such people, there are a couple of questions worth asking, and some answers worth mulling over:
1. We're all fighting Islamic State so what's the problem? The problem is that tactical and strategic aims aren't the same thing. Just because YPG are fighting IS doesn't mean YPG does not have broader strategic aims, such as autonomy or independence, that are definitely not shared by the Australian — or any other Western — government. Western governments can modify the political and military support they provide to the Kurds to give weight to shared tactical aims; individuals don't have that luxury.
2. The US is supporting YPG forces, so why can't Australian citizens? The first assertion is perfectly true, but given it is a state actor with control over the deployed assets, the US can ensure that its assets (both ground and air) are used against targets that are exclusively part of the anti-IS campaign. If the targets aren't tied to that aim then the support can be denied or withdrawn. The same can't be said for individual 'volunteers' in YPG. Once you're a foreign fighter you lose control over your destiny; when you cross the border you can be used by YPG against anyone YPG is fighting. Rebel groups have accused the YPG of being little better than proxies for Assad's forces, while YPG forces have also clashed with pro-Assad forces recently in Qamishli.
3. What does Turkey think of all this? The Turkish sensitivity to the provision of support for Kurdish groups was amply demonstrated when pictures of US Special Forces wearing YPG colour patches became public. This decision by local commanders to establish a degree of solidarity with their supported forces was understandable at the tactical level but strategically not smart, and it was countermanded once it became known by the Turkish government and a higher coalition headquarters. Think then how the Turkish government feels about Australians fighting for YPG who Ankara sees (with quite some justification) as a sub-branch of the PKK (a listed terrorist group). At present (and even more so in the post-IS phase) the Australian government needs the support of the Turkish government to assist it in identifying, detaining and repatriating Australian Islamists fighting for IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Ankara is hardly going to bend over backwards to cooperate with Canberra if it feels that Australia is keen to prosecute Islamist foreign fighters but not so keen to prosecute YPG/PKK fighters.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kurdishstruggle