The British man who fought in Syria for Kurdish freedom, socialism and “glory”

10/04/2017
david

CommonSpace spoke to a British man who fought in Kurdistan against Daesh and for socialism, about his time there and the meaning of armed struggle

“I ALWAYS wanted to fight,” says Gary Oak [not his real name].

It’s an audacious statement and there’s more to come from the 31 year-old railway worker. The gentle tone and approachable manner belie the radicalism of a man you would never guess had spent recent months at war in Rojava, the self-governing Kurdish zone in Northern Syria, fighting against Daesh (so called Islamic State).

“I first went out with a reconstruction brigade because I wanted to know what I would be fighting for before I said ‘I’m going to fight’.”

The cause he found there, volunteering in a non-military role, made him even more convinced of the virtues of the movement in Rojava, which involves experiments in direct democracy, attempts to institutionalise gender equality and bridge sectarian and ethnic divides in and increasingly fractious region.

The onset of the Syrian Civil war in 2011 saw the souring of the revolution that produced it. Military brutalisation by armed forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad helped give rise to sectarian fundamentalist groups in Syria and neighbouring Iraq – already broken by years of war.

“We have to become more than just the individual, we have to become something more. The risk of death, the risk of violence, the risk of killing smashes that individualism,” Gary Oak

In the resulting chaos, and with neighbouring Turkey also destabilised, the Kurds, the oldest stateless people in the middle-east, had a sudden new lease of freedom.

Oaks sees the movement as an opportunity to advance the socialist cause in a region tumbling into civil strife. But it becomes clear quickly that he thinks his fighting has a more universal meaning.

“The second time I returned to fight, and that decision to fight is important, that’s what I’m saying. People need to take a decision mentally that they are going to fight and that they are going to give up things and risk things, in fact risk sacrificing their lives for the values we have,” he says.

Oakes helped establish a group of leftwing volunteers from the UK, the Bob Crow Brigade, named after the recently deceased militant leader of his trade union, the RMT.

Oak’s disarming manner, a quiet charisma and a boyish smile, fails to prepare for his views on the nature of violence and what he sees as its need in the contemporary political climate.

Oak’s disarming manner, a quiet charisma and a boyish smile, fails to prepare for his views on the nature of violence and what he sees as its need in the contemporary political climate.

“If you look at ISIS [another name for Daesh], all they are saying is ‘you could die’, and a lot of people in our society are very atomised, very concerned about how they feel – ‘am I feeling happy today’ – and don’t understand the appeal of an ideology that says ‘your life isn’t that important, you are part of a greater whole, your death might be important’,” he says.

“If we don’t have an alternative for that which is trying to be as powerful, something bigger than our own lives, we are powerless against their narrative.”

“It’s part of a revolutionary aesthetic, we need to smash the last stage of the enlightenment” which embodies an obsession with the individual, he argues.

“We have to become more than just the individual, we have to become something more. The risk of death, the risk of violence, the risk of killing smashes that [individualism].”

The death of individualism, the vitalising nature of violence, a “revolutionary aesthetic” – this is all potent stuff.

Oak travelled to Palestine, and adopted from then on the ethic of international solidarity. He later joined the UK Territorial Army, to receive arms and other combat training.

It’s a reflection of Oak’s radicalisation in contemporary British society – beginning with the Iraq War in 2003. He joined the mass demonstrations against the attack on Iraq, and says he was “devastated” by the movements’ failure to avert war. The Iraq conflict itself would spiral out of control in coming years, helping to lay the basis for the current degeneration of the region into violence.

Then in 2004, Tom Hurndall, a young Palestine solidarity activists who had attended Oak’s school, was shot and killed by an Israeli Defence Force’s officer in the Gaza strip.

He travelled to Palestine, and adopted from then on the ethic of international solidarity. He later joined the UK Territorial Army, to receive arms and other combat training.

In the UK he continued his activism with community campaigning and trade unionism.

In 2015 another death would stimulate Oak’s interest in the Kurdish struggle. Ivana Hoffman, a black, gay German woman who, for Oaks “embodies a new chapter in socialist identity and internationalism”, was killed in fighting, serving in a Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG).

Shortly after, the International Freedom Battalion, attracting volunteers from all over the world was formed, to which the Bob Crow Brigade would affiliate.

The banner of the International Freedom Battalion, to which the Bob Crow Brigade is affiliated, at an anti-fascist gig in Glasgow

He served for around six months from the middle of 2016. During his time there the Syrian civil war reached its climatic and bloody final phase, with the siege of Aleppo, though the Kurdish struggle had by then long decoupled from the fighting between rebel militias and the Syrian government. Indeed, there have been clashes between Kurds and some rebel groups in the wildly complicated fighting, which inolves innumerable factions and intervening foreign actors. On Friday (7 April) the US increased its involvement in the war by bombing Assad’s military infrastructure. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Russia are just a few of the other actors now in the region.

These months also saw Daesh’s grip on the once large areas of Syria and Iraq they controlled begin to slip. Oak can’t disclose the details of the fighting he was involved in, but he was involved in the driving of Daesh back towards their avowed capital of Raqqa in Syria, the last major city they control uncontested since they lost most of the Iraqi city of Mosul in recent fighting.

Oak is reluctant to raise his profile for two main reasons – firstly because some who have spoken out about volunteering for the socialist and Kurdish cause have been arrested in recent months and years. Secondly, because he knows of people in his own neighbourhood who have gone to Syria to fight for Daesh, potentially placing him in danger when they return.

But Oak, traveling Scotland in recent weeks, attending events in Glasgow to raise the profile of the international brigades’ cause, is already convinced the spread of violence to the West is inevitable.

He says: “I don’t mean everyone needs to die and kill – but people need to have that as part of their outlook. We are living in a society where people are building private armies, gated communities with private security.

Oak, traveling Scotland from two weeks ago, attending events in Glasgow to raise the profile of the international brigades’ cause, is already convinced the spread of violence to the West is inevitable.

“People have to realise there will be a fight. Things like Rojava are the perfect opportunity,” to demonstrate that necessity, he argues.

“The very, very rich are preparing for a world where the social democratic peace built after 1945 is collapsing, and they will pay for violence, they are already paying for the fences and gates around their areas, they are paying for private security forces that are automatically violent. So we are already living in that situation.”

Economic crisis, climate change and social alienation are driving the rise of nationalist and religious movements, as well as the world toward a violent crisis. The only response to this, he reiterates, is to break through the current liberal value system prominent among Western progressives, and adopt a more radical approach to the world’s problems.

This requires, apart from much else, symbols of struggle, and his “revolutionary aesthetic”.

“Glory is something we need to bring back. We have it, but was always hold it in the past.

“So people are very proud of the handful of international brigades who went to Spain from their town, every year we gather around a memorial for the international brigades on the south bank in London. But we have to have it now as well we have to celebrate people doing a similar thing today.

Interview: Scottish trade unionists and activists return from Kurdish solidarity trip in Turkey

“Glory and martyrdom are very important things to me, I celebrate them.”

Oak, who spoke at a day school on the Kurdish struggle at Strathclyde University, and an anti-fascist music night in the city centre, quietly visited the monument to the cities volunteers in the Spanish Civil war of the 1930’s, before he returned south.

Pictures: Twitter, CommonSpace

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