Much public concern and political squabbling in Europe has focused on returnees from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Above all, anxieties have been centred on the potential security risks posed by former fighters and supporters of the so-called Islamic State. Over 1,000 German citizens and residents had joined the self-declared caliphate in the Levant; and their prospective return has sparked fierce debates about the state’s obligations to its citizens and the possibility of forfeiture of citizenship for membership in a terrorist organisation.1
Yet European volunteers not only supported jihadi factions: by 2018, the German Federal Government estimated that 250 men and women had joined Kurdish militias, most notably the PKK’s Syrian affiliate YPG. They fight against IS and other jihadi groups – and now also against Germany’s NATO ally Turkey, hell-bent on preventing the establishment of an independent Kurdish statelet in northern Syria.
According to German government estimates, 20 of these pro-Kurdish activists and fighters have been killed; over 100 have returned to Germany. The question of how to deal with these returnees is placing German authorities in a serious bind, resulting from the competing alliances of the Syrian quagmire.
On the one hand, Kurdish forces continue to be German allies in the anti-IS coalition, benefiting from the support of the Bundeswehr. On the other hand, the YPG is now pitted against NATO member Turkey, who designates it a terrorist organisation and expects its European military allies to do the same. While the PKK has been included on the German Interior Ministry’s terrorism list since 1993, the YPG has so far escaped such a listing. Germany’s real or alleged lenience vis-à-vis Kurdish organisations has long been a thorn in the side of Turkish authorities.
Importantly, Germany’s entanglements with Turkey and Turkish politics are manifold: not only are economic relations tight; German policy-makers also depend on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to prevent Syrian refugees from crossing over the Aegean Sea into the European Union. Finally, over 1.2 million of Germany’s inhabitants claim Kurdish heritage, using the Federal Republic as a platform to organise more vigorously than it would possible in Turkey, Syria, or Iran.
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists
Against this backdrop, German prosecutors appear to walk a tightrope: while 30 criminal investigations have been opened against YPG returnees for ‘support or membership in a foreign terrorist association’ (Art. 129b of the Criminal Code), so far none of these have led to formal indictments. Moreover, none of the YPG returnees are labelled a Gefährder (lit. ‘endangerer’), a diffuse term used by German security agencies to assess the threat emanating individuals affiliated with a terrorist group. (By contrast, of 122 known jihadi returnees, 53 are under surveillance as Gefährder).2
Nevertheless, the official government position remains one of equivalence of pro-Kurdish and jihadi groups: the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) admitted that risks emanating from former YPG volunteers might be “quantitatively lower; yet qualitatively they are not to be evaluated as different from jihadi Syrian fighters.” The Federal Government snootily added that it did “not distinguish between supposedly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists.”3
Pro-Kurdish sympathies on the German Left
This stance is not uncontested, however. Especially on the left, there is significant sympathy for the Kurdish cause, and for its real-political instantiation in Rojava in northern Syria. Sections of the Green Party and especially of the left-wing Die Linke party have advocated on behalf of the Kurdish side, castigating the Federal Government for colluding with the Turkish leadership in anti-Kurdish repression.
Many of the Germans who joined Kurdish units did so out of left-wing convictions. Speaking to German public broadcaster NDR from Syria, one of them asserted that “you can read a lot about revolution in books; and here you for once have the opportunity to participate in one yourself. What could be more beautiful, if you’re sharing these values?”4
The interviewee, using the pseudonym Felix to protect his family in Germany, asserts that he joined the Kurdish side not as a fighter: instead, he has been busy building social infrastructure for educational and cultural activities. The pro-Kurdish Rojava Information Center has also stated that Germans serve “mostly in civilian functions”; yet there are also reports that a small number of former soldiers from the German army have joined the YPG.5
‘Desire for justice’
Felix professes his intention to stay in the region – despite the Turkish military offensive – to safeguard what has been built under Kurdish self-administration. Others have been less fortunate: Konstantin G., a 24-year-old German, died in November 2019, apparently hit by a Turkish airstrike.
Speaking to journalists shortly after his death, his parents evoke their son’s “desire for justice” as a driving force for his joining the YPG. As a medic in a tactical fighting unit, Konstantin was deployed much closer to the frontline; and many pictures and videos from social media show him armed and in full uniform. While he had returned to Germany for a short time in 2017 after having been wounded, he swiftly made his way back to Kurdistan.
German YPG returnees between Syria, Iraq, Germany – and South America
YPG returnees who have been targeted by German security authorities criticise the apparent double standards at play: former YPG affiliate Jan-Lukas Kuhley notes that “the YPG has shouldered the main burden in the fight against the IS” as the Bundeswehr’s ally. Hence, he defends his stint in Syria as “a fight against terrorism in the German interest”.6
Yet the fear of prosecution also appears to lead some former YPG supporters to avoid returning to Germany. While some might either stay in Syria or make their way to northern Iraq, where Kurdish rule is comparatively stable, journalists have also traced the steps of a former YPG volunteer to South America. He offered weapons training to militias in Medellín in Colombia (for a fee of € 2,000 per day), before making his way to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.7
Overall, however, with all prosecutions dropped, Germany is so far taking a more lenient tack vis-à-vis YPG returnees. The UK, by contrast, has jailed former pro-Kurdish fighters and expanded repression to include their family members.8 With the number of refugees on the so-called ‘Balkan route’ once more on the rise and Germany dependent on Turkey to reduce new arrivals to Europe, it remains to be seen whether this leniency will endure.