Presently in Syria, the Syrian Kurds are holding their ground against the vicious Islamic State. In the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani they have successfully held out against vicious Islamic State attacks and onslaughts. Given the horrible nature of that group and how the Kurds need all the help they can their armed fighters, known as “Peoples Protection Units” (the YPG), need all the help they can get. And some westerners have been brave enough to go and help them fight against Islamic State in defense of their homeland.
However the YPG has many members of the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) fighting within its ranks. The PYD is a direct affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the organization which engaged the Turkish state in a protracted guerrilla and terrorist campaign from 1984 until 2013. It has been considered by the United States as a terrorist organization since 1997. Given the fact that the YPG is made up of many affiliates of that group it too could easily be categorized as a terrorist organization.
Indeed they are seeking recruits to help hold the line against Islamic State in Kobani. Foreign volunteers wishing to help them defend their homeland should learn some Kurdish and the basics about the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan and his beliefs. Some Europeans have done this as well as Americans and Canadians in order to fight the self-styled Islamic State.
The problem for Americans is this: the United States still maintains that the PKK is a terrorist organization. But at the same time the US is not disinterested in who prevails in Kobani, as evidenced by the fact they air-dropped weapons to the YPG defenders there and have been running several bombing runs against attacking IS fighters.
At the same time however that is not the same as doing what a high school graduate from Wisconsin, Jordan Matson, has done. He traveled to Syria to directly fight with the Kurds and help them defend their homeland against a terrorist group which has gruesomely beheaded British and American citizens alike.
While both Europe and North America are fearful of their citizens joining the ranks of violent jihadi groups like Islamic State, they are not totally opposed to westerners volunteering their services to fight against such groups. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has recently made clear that there exists a “fundamental difference” between British citizens who fight alongside the Kurds and those who fight with Islamic State. Of course that goes without saying.
But in the United States the laws against aiding and abetting designated terrorist groups and their affiliates brings into question the legality under American law of American citizens volunteering their services to the YPG. While, as I just said, the United States has given some aid and assistance to the YPG against Islamic State, through the dropping of arms and supplies. But it isn’t coordinating operations closely with them like they are with the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary forces in neighbouring Iraq (interestingly in that country the Peshmerga and the PKK now virtually have a de-facto alliance necessitated by their common enemy there). And the only reason they are giving some assistance to the YPG is likely because they have no real ground allies in Syria with which to fight against Islamic State and also because it is not in their strategic interests to let Islamic State gain any more ground in Syria.
The law on providing material and support to designated terrorists in the United States is quite wide-ranging. Especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the USA Patriot Act’s complete banning of any U.S. citizen providing material support to groups on the U.S. terrorist list. The PKK is one such group and given the close affiliation it has with the PYD that party likely falls within that classification. So too does providing assistance to them, not to mention actually joining their ranks and fighting with them.
Now is a perfect time to recall, and perhaps reevaluate, the Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project case. That June 2010 United States Supreme Court case was contested between U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Humanitarian Law Project organization. What was it the Supreme Court ruled against Humanitarian Law Project for? Seeking to do something which would under U.S. law constitute aiding and abetting terrorists. How were they, according to this cases verdict, seeking to illegally aid and abet terrorists? By planning to seek out and give legal advice to representatives of groups like the PKK about conflict resolution, a process which was deemed as a form of assisting U.S.-declared terrorist groups since it could serve to “legitimize” them.
Flashback to 2010 when the PKK was still engaged against the Turkish state in the southeast of that country. As with cases like the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the past, the Humanitarian Law Project sought to give that group legal advice concerning the prospects of talking peace with Ankara and resolving that decades-old conflict. While peace talks were indeed finally initiated early last year it is not clear if they will amount to anything and there are some worrying signs that the conflict may flare up again.
In conclusion the verdict of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project was striking. Especially in light of the fact that those American citizens who wish to do their part today in the fight against Islamic State are doing so by joining the YPG. It is not clear if they will face legal repercussions when they, and of course if, finally return home to their families after fighting the same group with which the United States is at war. The Holder case demonstrated that the United States Congress even holds that legal advice to such groups with the aim of fostering a peace agreement constitutes aiding and abetting. With that being the case joining the ranks of what the U.S. holds to be a terrorist affiliate may see to those Americans fighting the YPG in a spot of trouble if they do survive and return home.
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