British YPG volunteer who fought Islamic State faces charges, but he is a hero not a terrorist

by Steve Sweeney    


The case of Jim Matthews should concern us all. The former YPG fighter faces a court hearing tomorrow [Feb 14] where he could be jailed for up to ten years for terrorism offences. It is also a watershed moment in British foreign policy. The trial is not just about Matthews. It is a marker for the British government policy in a post-Isis Syria and paves the way for it to officially list the YPG as a terrorist organisation. 

Matthews is the first British YPG volunteer to be charged with terror offences in what is a major shift in the government’s treatment of those who fought with coalition forces against jihadists in Syria.  While Josh Walker, who also served in the YPG, was charged with terror offences on his return to Britain, his case was to do possession of a copy of the Anarchists Cookbook. He was cleared but Walker’s treatment was a sign of things to come. 

Matthews has been back from Syria for almost two years which begs the question: why now?

The former soldier was motivated to sign-up to the YPG after seeing a photograph online of jihadists holding the heads of people they had brutally decapitated. 

“It was one of the most evil single images I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. 

Yet following the funeral of another YPG fighter Jac Holmes, who was killed clearing mines in a clean-up operation in Raqqa in October, Matthews was charged with terrorism offences. 

A letter seen by The Region reads: "You are charged with the following offence". 

 “On or before 15th February 2016 within the jurisdiction of the Central Criminal Court attended a place or places in Iraq or Syria where instruction or training was provided for purposes connected with the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism. 

“Contrary to section 8 of the Terrorism Act 2006.” 

Section 8 is concerned with attendance at a place used for terrorist training and prohibits anyone from being at a place where training is going on (whether in the United Kingdom or abroad_, provided the person knew or reasonably believed that it was happening. 

If convicted, Matthews could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment. 

The Terrorism Act was one of the most controversial measures introduced by the Blair government and led to his first Commons defeat after Labour backbenchers rebelled over plans that would have seen suspects held for 90 days without trial amid accusations of a “police state.” 

British volunteers have often spoken of a fear of arrest on their return to Britain. Kimmie Taylor, the first British woman to join the YPG said she fears that she cannot return to Britain having fought for “political and social revolution” and the empowerment of women. Others said they have also received calls from security services following the funeral and many more are looking over their shoulders with concern. It marks a worrying shift in how the government treats those who have bravely volunteered to fight Isis in northern Syria, but also signifies the shape of future British policy in the region. 

It is worth recalling another fight against fascism which became a rallying call for British men and women who made the journey across Europe to Spain in the 1930s 

Between 1936-1939 around 2,500 people volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic as part of the International Brigades. They were largely recruited and organised politically by the Communist Party, which became synonymous with anti-fascism. It was very much their war in Spain just as the fight against the fascists of Isis very much belongs to the revolutionary Kurds, embodied by the anti-capitalist, democratic society being built in Rojava. 

Both were, of course, anathema to Britain. Just as they opposed Communist influence in Spain, they oppose the revolutionary struggle being waged in northern Syria. 

Britain openly supports regime change in Syria. It cares very little for democracy and even less for an avowed anti-capitalist society which poses a threat to imperialist plans for the region. 

Those who volunteered in Spain were threatened with the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 which forbids “any commission or engagement in the military or naval service of any foreign state at war with a friendly state.” However, the act, which remains on the statute book was never used.  The International Brigades finally left Spain in December 1938 as it became apparent the Republic was to be defeated. The words of Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionara, are just as fitting for the heroes that have fought in Syria. 

“You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of the solidarity and universality of democracy…We will not forget you; and when the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back.” 

As hundreds of international volunteers returned to Britain they were met by cheering crowds at Victoria station in London. Labour leader and future Prime Minister Clement Attlee – who had a company in the British Batallion named after him -  was there to greet them as they received a hero’s welcome. 

In contrast, the British volunteers who have been fighting fascism in Syria return alone.

Many are quizzed by security services at the airport and have their mobile phones confiscated. There is no welcome party, no flag waving and no cheering masses. The Labour Party can barely bring itself to acknowledge them, let alone speak out against their treatment. Many report struggling to cope on their return, yet there are no support services available to them. Returning volunteers rely on the kindness of others with sympathisers often giving them a place to stay, helping them to readjust to life in Britain. 

Fearing arrest or worse, many feel unable to speak about their experiences. Is this any way to treat those who have given up so much and risked their lives fighting for humanity and a future for all of us? 

The cause of the Spanish Republic was even supported by a number of Tories, with future British Prime Minister Ted Heath visiting the front as part of a student delegation just before the battle of Ebro. It was there where he met with Jack Jones who went on to become general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), now Unite. They forged a lifelong friendship and respect for each other, despite big political differences. By today’s standards, both would face possible arrest and charges of terrorism. 

The dates that are mentioned in the charges against Matthews bear some scrutiny. The papers refer to activities “on or before February 2016.” However, during this period the British government was supporting the YPG in Syria by taking part in strategic bombing campaigns and offering tactical support. 

If fighting Isis in Syria alongside the coalition forces that the British government were supporting is enough to land Matthews in court then surely the British government should also be in the dock. 

Yet at no stage during the time Matthews fought were the YPG deemed terrorists. Presumably, they were part of former PM David Cameron’s infamous and mystical 70,000 moderates in Syria who he claimed would be the forces on the ground fighting Isis as he built the case for military intervention in Syria. While it was politically expedient to support the YPG as the fight against the jihadists was raging, their defeat now poses the crucial question of a post-Isis Syria. 

For Britain and the US a democratic Syria means a compliant state necessitating the removal of Assad. But their presence in Middle Eastern countries, particularly those with large Muslim majorities, is deeply unpopular following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Removing Assad from power, however, is not as easy or straightforward as they would like. Not only did he survive the so-called “Arab Spring” where leaders in the region fell like dominoes, but he has emerged in a stronger position. 

Covert operations whereby the US was funding and arming “opposition” groups in the country failed and was brought to an end by President Trump. British military intervention was blocked following mass protests and Labour Party opposition led by Ed Miliband – the Iraq war effect. 

The imperialists want to see a divided Syria which would increase their influence in the region and weaken the control of Assad. But they do not want to see northern Syria controlled by revolutionaries and the PYD. And they need a way out of the short-term tactical alliance with the YPG. Branding them terrorists would give them the way out they need and also end its support for the PYD in the region. 

A recent inquiry in the British parliament, Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK, looks to have given them the lifeline they needed. As MPs quizzed academics and received written testimony from the Turkish, Russian and US governments it became clear that they were trying to link the PYD and the YPG to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. (PKK)

As one academic detailed the relationship between the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish parties, even at one stage describing them as “the parent organisation”, committee chair Tom Tugenhadt intervened to suggest that given what he had heard the YPG should surely also be classed as terrorists.The YPG had effectively been handed to the British government on a plate. It was this evidence that led the committee to its conclusion. While it was contradictory and seemed to suggest that the PYD should be included in the Geneva talks over the future of Syria it blasted the British government for an “incoherent view” on links to the PKK. 

The committee chair explained that “the evidence to our inquiry argued that this group was linked to the PKK, even though the nature and extent of these links is debatable” and warned the Foreign Office position lacked credibility, urging it to come to “a clear view.” In other words, list the YPG and PYD as terrorists. 

This pattern appears to be being replicated among other coalition partners. German intelligence accused the PKK of increased activity in the country following the invasion of Afrin and labelled the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria its “sister organisation.” 

In a seemingly contradictory move, the US appears to be investing in the SDF as part of its Border Security Force operation including 30,000 troops in northern Syria. It was this that so enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading to the invasion of Afrin. But we should be wary of the US motives in supporting the SDF. They too are committed to regime change in Syria and see its future as one without Assad. They are unlikely to support an autonomous state as part of a federal Syria under the control of revolutionaries.

The future of Rojava is at stake. It would be entirely consistent for the US and Britain for them to back the compliant Barzani forces in the region. This shouldn’t and won’t be underestimated. They are past masters in this regard having a track record of supporting compliant leaders who support their interests.  

But as jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan identified, an independent Kurdistan under the auspices of the United States would be neither free, nor independent but act as another Israel in the Middle East. 

The Kurds are acutely aware of the role of the United States and their motives in the region. While some western leftists have been reluctant to support those fighting Isis in Syria and the Rojava project because of their tactical alliance with the US, they have no excuses not to support them in a straightforward fight against Nato second largest army – Turkey. 

 Erdogan’s war on Afrin is almost certainly illegal. It breaches international law and the Geneva Convention as a war of aggression against a non-aggressor. 

 And the silence of world leaders who are lining up to say that Turkey has a right to defend its borders – as if that justifies a bloody and brutal assault against a peaceful, non-aggressive people – means they are complicit and have the blood of the people of Afrin on their hands. 

 Turkey has long wanted war in Afrin and has frequently subjected it to bombing raids and other attacks including cutting off water supplies. There is a logic in this for Erdogan. He wants to drive a wedge between Afrin and the other cantons of Rojava. And he is being allowed to do so by the imperialist US and Russia, although for different reasons. 

The war on Afrin is Britain’s war. It is Russia and the US war. It is Natos war. It is the United Nations war. It is the EU's war. It is a war of imperialism against the revolutionary Kurds who are fighting for democracy. It is a fight for humanity. And it is a war all of us must oppose. 

Jim Matthews is a cog in the imperialist's wheel. His case is about his liberty, a hero who has risked everything to fight for a better future for all of us. But it is also about the future of Rojava, the future of humanity. 

Jim Matthews is a hero, not a terrorist. Tomorrow there will be a vigil outside the courtroom for Jim. We should all be there. We are all Jim Matthews.