The heroic struggle of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to drive the murderous Islamic State (IS) regime from the gates of cities like Kobanî and Raqqa has passed into legend. Its defence of the democratic, multi-ethnic and anti-patriarchal self-governing system — wedged between repressive forces — has inspired people around the world.
People from the other side of the globe have been moved to risk death and join the international brigade of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (known as Rojava).
But making this journey is not easy.
Over the past two decades, Western governments have made the “war on terror” their justification for every foreign intervention and attack on civil liberties. Meanwhile, they have supported terrorist regimes, like Saudi Arabia, and made it illegal for citizens to take up arms against the IS.
This is the experience of Perth man Jamon Hartzer, who was stopped at the airport and had his passport indefinitely cancelled. He spoke to Green Left about his story.
Many Western supporters of the YPG come from an organised left-wing tradition, but Hartzer’s route was different. A working-class guy from Perth’s suburbs, with no history of activism, Hartzer was a sporting shooter who, 10 years earlier, had tried to join the army, explaining: “I’d always wanted to join the army to help people”. His application was rejected because of a driving conviction.
When Hartzer saw news coverage of the YPG’s struggle against IS and international volunteers — such as Matthew Gardiner, a former president of the Labor Party and secretary of the United Voice union in the Northern Territory — he was inspired to do the same, convinced he could make a contribution.
He said he did not have romantic illusions as to what fighting IS would actually be like. “I thought it would be terrible, but that it was something that needed to be done ... in fact I had a lot of trouble sleeping, leading up to when I was going away. I knew I would see terrible things there that would change me. The internationals I’ve spoken to have told me how it’s affected them. But again, it’s something that had to be done.”
The YPG International website advises people to only make contact via encrypted email and other secure communication methods for their own protection. However, Hartzer had been in correspondence with several returned international volunteers on platforms like Facebook Messenger.
In 2017, only days before he had planned to leave for Rojava, Hartzer received a phone call from the Western Australian Police to advise that they were going to carry out a random, but routine, inspection of his gun safe. Within minutes of him confirming that he was at home, more than 10 Australian Federal Police agents entered his house.
“They were all over my house looking for weapons and would not let me move ... on the warrant I could see key words like YPG and YPJ.”
Hartzer is certain that they had been looking at his Facebook Messenger account and those of other international volunteers, both those returned from or still in Rojava, including his messages asking for advice. The AFP agents left with all his electronic devices and his passport, but returned the passport 18 months later.
However, in the intervening period, the AFP left the threat of a 10-year jail term under the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014 hanging over his head. This law makes no distinction between those who fight against IS and those who fight for it.
Whether to bring charges is ultimately at the discretion of the attorney general and, to date, every Australian who has volunteered for the YPG, or attempted to do so, has either not been charged or has had their charges dropped.
Clearly, the federal government recognises that prosecuting someone for having the courage to actually fight IS would be very unpopular. While Hartzer didn’t expect to cop the full 10 years, he genuinely feared he might receive a shorter sentence if charged and convicted.
In the siege of Kobanî, it was authoritarian Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who provided IS with vital access to weapons and funding.
With the defeat of IS, the frontline in the SDF’s battle for survival is now its desperate resistance to the invasion of its territory from the north by the Turkish army, and Erdoğan’s attempt to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer zone within northern Syria “cleansed” of Kurds and populated with former al-Qaida and IS militants.
According to Hartzer, the AFP agents who questioned him were especially alarmed that he said he was just as prepared to fight Turkish troops as the IS gangsters.
Turkey used to be a pillar of US foreign policy, but relations have been strained in recent years with Erdoğan playing the West off against Russia. Nevertheless, as Hartzer noted, “That’s a big no-no, because Turkey is a NATO ally. That was their biggest issue, the fact that I was saying that I was prepared to fight Turkey too.”
Who’s the terrorist?
Australian legislation still lists the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkish-based Kurdish resistance movement, as a terrorist organisation. Yet it was the PKK that declared a ceasefire in favour of peace talks with the Turkish state — talks that Erdoğan abandoned in favour of a return to war while funnelling aid to IS and invading northern Syria.
This is further proof that the word “terrorist” in official discourse has become hypocritical, meaningless double-speak.
While Hartzer shelved his plans to become a combatant, he remained committed to building solidarity with the SDF and the Kurdish people more generally.
In August last year, he prepared to attend a Kurdish solidarity conference in northern Iraq from where he wanted to report on the Kurdish struggle. He’s also a passionate musician and had been invited to perform a concert dedicated to the YPG and PKK fighters who had rescued some 50,000 Yazidis who were trapped and being massacred by IS at Mount Sinjar in 2014.
Hartzer was also looking forward to producing new music in collaboration with Kurdish musicians.
Armed with his guitar, Hartzer was stopped at Perth airport, prevented from boarding, and taken in for questioning. Ironically, after having received written threats from Turkish nationalists, he was more worried about the possibility of a tip-off from Turkish intelligence causing him to be stopped, or worse, by the authorities in Dubai.
Hartzer explained: “I went through customs ... and then I felt a tap on my right shoulder and I heard a voice say ‘Mr Hartzer’. I turned around and it was one of the same agents that had interviewed me in 2017. He just said to me: ‘You aren’t going anywhere’. All I had on me was the guitar on my back and cameras for my journalism work.”
Hartzer was led into an interview room where he says he was questioned for more than four hours. He says he declined the option of legal representation because he had nothing to hide and intended to be absolutely open about his intentions. “I don't want to make it look like I’ve done anything wrong; I haven’t. I’m proud of what I've done ... and I also believe it’s the best way to get awareness out there.”
Once again, he had his passport taken from him on the basis of his actions in 2017. “I don't see how that’s possible, given no charges were laid, so they shouldn’t be able to use 2017 as grounds to do that.” He intends to pursue legal action to have his passport returned.
Erdoğan is now waging all-out war against the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey itself, and in northern Iraq and Rojava. Yet the US and the European NATO powers that lecture the world about the fight against terrorism continue to sell Turkey heavy weaponry.
Hartzer was scathing: “I’m disgusted with all the Western powers because they don’t think human life is valuable. If there’s no oil or anything else to be gained then they won’t intervene ... every Western government is responsible especially considering the Kurdish people rid us of such an evil regime. I mean IS still exists, but there are thousands less of them wreaking havoc around the world. The world owes them a debt of gratitude, not betrayal.
“Australians should be helping them, the whole world should be ... Going over to volunteer is a very big decision; you have to accept that you could die. But there are a lot of other things that you can do, that we need to do: raise awareness; raise funds for the Kurdish Red Crescent and get to know the Kurdish community where you live.”