In late December there was some chatter online that a Canadian fighting with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group in northern Syria, may have been killed. A few days earlier, the Islamic State (IS), through its media agency Amaq, announced it had killed two Westerners near the Syrian village of Jabar, not far from Raqqa, the capital of their self-proclaimed Caliphate. Two weeks later, the YPG confirmed that Nazzareno Tassone, a Canadian, was killed together with Ryan Lock, a fighter from the United Kingdom.
Tassone and Lock weren’t the only individuals from the West fighting with Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. In fact, the mobilization of these fighters began in October 2014, when an American named Jordan Matson paved the way for others to join the YPG, and began to advertise for the cause. In the following weeks and months, a large number of foreigners joined him. This initial trickle ballooned to over 350 fighters, including 20 women, according to their online profiles, from countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal and Mexico. Thirty-five were Canadians. As of now, 22 of these volunteers have given their lives.
From the beginning, Canadians distinguished themselves in a variety of ways. The first documented female volunteer was a Canadian, and one of the first fighters to be involved in the campaign in Iraq was also Canadian.
While there is a lot of media attention around Canadians joining jihadist groups like ISIS, the phenomenon of men and women from Canada joining Kurdish groups is less understood. Nevertheless, it raises some important questions regarding Canada’s official position with respect to its citizens fighting in foreign conflicts.
Under several international agreements, Canada has agreed to prevent terrorism, prevent its citizens from carrying out terrorist acts abroad, as well as prevent its citizens from facilitating terrorist groups in other parts of the world. With respect to jihadist groups, these lines are often clear.
But the lines can become murky when Canadians join other nonstate organizations that are not listed as terrorist groups. For example, in Iraq, Canadians have been arrested by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq upon their return from working with the YPG in Syria. Kurdish leaders in Iraq do not want foreigners contributing to the efforts of the YPG, which is an affiliate of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). For mostly economic reasons, the KRG is aligned with the Turkish government in its fierce campaign against the PKK. Canadian officials had to intervene to secure the release of these individuals.
On the other hand, Ottawa is hesitant to provide aid when these volunteers die. For instance, the repatriation and funeral expenses for Tassone will be covered by private contributions. The Canadian government does not wish to be involved in this process or in the commemorations. This decision has raised criticism, especially among other volunteers who want more recognition from the Canadian government.
Among these Canadians fighting in Syria and Iraq are a large number of former soldiers, motivated by glory, adventure and the desire to help. For one former Canadian Forces member, for instance, Syria was the most accessible conflict to join. He was ready and willing to fight — it didn’t much matter where. As he wrote on his online profile a few weeks before his departure, “Hmmm Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq, or Nepal, where can we get in most trouble?”
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In other words, many of these recruits are former Canadian soldiers who have not been adequately reintegrated following their official tours of duty. The Canadian government has an obligation to these individuals beyond simply turning its back and allowing them into another theatre of conflict, especially one where the line dividing listed terrorist entities and legitimate fighting forces is not always clear.
In addition to providing former soldiers with veteran support in the form of monetary compensation, the government should put more effort into helping them establish civilian careers and finding ways to address their social and emotional needs. The Canadian government should also ban Canadian citizens from fighting for another state or nonstate army.
These issues become even more urgent as these fighters return to Canada from Syria and Iraq, often with no job prospects and little money. For some, their decision to fight abroad meant that their families cut off ties with them entirely. These individuals often turn to Kurdish communities in Canada who offer food, shelter and meagre support. Others return with physical and psychological injuries that haunt them for years to come. One Albertan woman, for instance, lost her hearing after surviving a suicide attack in Syria, and decided to rejoin the fight after the desire to be on the frontlines was reignited.
Nazzareno Tassone, the latest Canadian casualty in Syria, was also part of a new wave of volunteers: younger, less experienced and more motivated to take part in the Kurdish revolution than those who left two years ago and were driven primarily by the desire to stop ISIS. Gone are the former soldiers who were able to live and operate in difficult contexts, accustomed in some way to the misfortunes of war. Canada now sees its citizens engaging in a cause with enormous implications and sometimes tragic consequences. Sadly, our policy response has not kept up with the speed of events on the ground.
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