Tear­ing out the ‘heart of dark­ness’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Hunkered down on the top floor of an aban­doned build­ing, two Amer­i­cans and a Bri­tish vol­un­teer face off against Is­lamic State snipers in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa. The trio, in­clud­ing two who served in the French For­eign Le­gion and the war in Iraq, have made the war against IS their own.

They are among dozens of Western vol­un­teers who have bat­tled the Is­lamic State group in Iraq, and now in Raqqa, the city in north­east­ern Syria that the mil­i­tants de­clared the cap­i­tal of their self-pro­claimed caliphate. The men joined US-al­lied Syr­ian mili­tias for dif­fer­ent rea­sons - some mo­ti­vated by sur­vivors’ ac­counts of bru­tal­ity at the hands of the ex­trem­ists. Oth­ers joined what they see as a quest for jus­tice and a fi­nal bat­tle to tear out the “heart of dark­ness.”

Tay­lor Hud­son, a 33-year old from Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia, com­pares the fight for Raqqa to the 1945 Bat­tle of Ber­lin in World War II that ended the rule of Adolf Hitler. “This is the Ber­lin of our times,” said Hud­son, who dou­bles as a pla­toon medic and a sniper in the bat­tle against the mil­i­tants. For him, IS ex­trem­ists “rep­re­sent every­thing that is wrong with hu­man­ity.”

Deep­en­ing con­flict

Syria’s war, now in its sev­enth year, has at­tracted for­eign fighters to all sides. Ex­trem­ists from Europe, Asia and North Africa have flocked to IS as well as lo­cal Al-Qaeda-linked groups. Shi­ite Ira­nian and Le­banese mili­tias have sided with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, deep­en­ing the sec­tar­ian na­ture of the con­flict that has killed over 400,000 peo­ple and dis­placed over 11 mil­lion, half of Syria’s pre-war pop­u­la­tion. A much smaller num­ber of Western vol­un­teers fight along­side the US-al­lied Kur­dish mili­tia known as the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG. The US mil­i­tary has de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship with the YPG and its ex­ten­sion, the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, in the war against IS.

Be­fore that, dozens of West­ern­ers joined Iraqi Kurds fight­ing IS, spurred on by Kur­dish so­cial me­dia cam­paign­ers and a sense of duty many feel af­ter Iraq, the tar­get of a decade-long US-led mil­i­tary cam­paign, col­lapsed un­der an IS of­fen­sive within days in the sum­mer of 2014. Some Western vol­un­teers have died in bat­tle. Ear­lier this month, the YPG an­nounced that 28 year-old Robert Grodt, of Santa Cruz, Cal­i­for­nia, and 29-year-old Ni­cholas Alan War­den, of Buf­falo, New York, died in the bat­tle for Raqqa.

Since launch­ing the push on Raqqa on June 6, the U.S.-backed forces have taken a third of the city. Hud­son, who has been fight­ing in Syria for the past 13 months, said he was moved to tears by me­dia re­ports of Iraqi Yazidi women en­slaved by IS. A phar­macy stu­dent who learned com­bat medicine in the field, he said he had treated some 600 wounded ahead of the march onto Raqqa. The pres­ence of Western anti-IS vol­un­teers in Syria has cre­ated some­thing of a co­nun­drum for their govern­ments, which have of­ten ques­tioned them on ter­ror­ism charges. “I am not a ter­ror­ist,” said

For­mer bro­ker

Macer Gif­ford, a 30-year for­mer bro­ker in London, who came to Syria three years ago to vol­un­teer first with the Kur­dish mili­tia. Now he is fight­ing with an Assyr­ian mili­tia, also part of the US-backed forces bat­tling IS. “I am here de­fend­ing the peo­ple of Syria against ter­ror­ists,” he added. Gif­ford has been ques­tioned by Bri­tish and US of­fi­cials. At home, he has writ­ten and lec­tured about the com­plex sit­u­a­tion in Syria, of­fer­ing a first­hand ac­count of IS’ evolv­ing tac­tics. “The Is­lamic State is ac­tu­ally an ex­cep­tional op­po­nent,” Gif­ford said. “We can’t ne­go­ti­ate them away, we can’t wish them away. The only way we can de­feat them is with force of arms.”

For Kevin Howard, a 28-year old for­mer US mil­i­tary con­trac­tor from Cal­i­for­nia who fought in Iraq in 2006, the war is more per­sonal. A skilled sniper who boasts of hav­ing killed 12 IS mil­i­tants so far, Howard said he is do­ing it for the vic­tims of the Bat­a­clan theatre at­tack in France, where the sis­ter of one of his best friends sur­vived. The Nov 13, 2015 at­tacks, claimed by IS, killed 130 peo­ple at Paris cafes, the na­tional sta­dium and the Bat­a­clan, where 90 died.

“This is a con­tin­u­a­tion of that fight. I think if you leave some­thing un­fin­ished, it will re­main un­fin­ished for a life­time,” he said, show­ing off his 1972 sniper ri­fle. On his fore­head and neck, he has tat­tooed “life is pain,” as well as “Rien N’em­pÍche” - or “Noth­ing Pre­vents”- from the song of the French For­eign Le­gion in which he served. “For me this is a chance to ab­so­lutely go to the heart of dark­ness and grab it and get rid of it,” he added. From his sniper po­si­tion on Raqqa’s front line, he peeked again through the ri­fle hole. For Howard, the or­ders to march deeper into the IS-held city can’t come soon enough. — AP

RAQQA: In this Mon­day, July 17, 2017 photo, Kevin Howard, a 28-year old for­mer US mil­i­tary con­trac­tor from Cal­i­for­nia, who fights with an Assyr­ian mili­tia, that is part of the US-backed forces bat­tling Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants, gives an in­ter­view to The As­so­ci­ated Press. —AP

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