Westerners joining in fight for Raqqa
RAQQA, Syria — Several Western volunteer fighters are on the front lines in the battle against the Islamic State militant group for the Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremists’ self-declared capital.
The men joined U.S.-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.”
Hunkered down on the top floor of an abandoned building, two Americans and a British volunteer face off against Islamic State snipers in Raqqa. The trio, including two who served in the French Foreign Legion and the war in Iraq, have made the war against the Islamic State their own.
They are among dozens of such volunteers who have battled the Islamic State in Iraq and now in Raqqa, in northeastern Syria.
Taylor Hudson, a 33-yearold from Pasadena, Calif., compares the fight for Raqqa to the 1945 Battle of Berlin in World War II, which 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, Islamic State extremists “represent everything that is wrong with humanity.”
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 the Islamic State as well as al-Qaida-linked groups. Shiite Iranian and Lebanese militias have sided with the Syrian government against rebel groups, 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 U.S.-allied Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units. The U.S. military has developed a close relationship with the militia and its extension, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the war against the Islamic State.
Before that, dozens of Westerners joined Iraqi Kurds fighting the Islamic State, spurred on by Kurdish social media campaigners and a sense of duty that many feel after Iraq, the target of a decade-long U.S.-led military campaign, collapsed under an Islamic State offensive in a matter of days in the summer of 2014.
Some Western volunteers have died in battle. Earlier this month, the militia announced that 28-year-old Robert Grodt, of Santa Cruz, Calif., and 29-year-old Nicholas Alan Warden, of Buffalo, N.Y., died in the battle for Raqqa.
Since beginning 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 the Islamic State. A pharmacy student who learned combat medicine in the field, he said he had treated some 600 wounded ahead of the march to Raqqa.
“I am here defending the people of Syria against terrorists,” said Macer Gifford, a 30-year former broker in London who traveled to Syria three years ago to volunteer first with the Kurdish militia. Now he is fighting with an Assyrian militia, also part of the U.S-backed forces battling the Islamic State.
At home, Gifford has written and lectured about the complex situation in Syria, offering a firsthand account of the Islamic State’s 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 U.S. military contractor from California who fought in Iraq in 2006, the war is more personal.
A sniper who boasts of having killed 12 Islamic State militants so far, Howard said he is doing it for the victims of the Bataclan theater attack in France, where the sister of one of his best friends survived. Attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, claimed by the Islamic State, 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.