In May, YRIS Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Siegel (MY ‘20) had the chance to talk over the phone with Brace Belden, a former soldier for the YPG (In Kurdish, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), a mainly-Kurdish militia in Syria formed in 2004.
The militia group fought against ISIS, and Belden spent 6 months among their ranks as a foreign volunteer. In 2015, after a major victory against ISIS at Kobane, the United States government began to send munitions to the YPG. Most recently, Turkey, who considers the YPG a “terrorist organization” has moved against YPG occupied areas in Northern Syria.
Belden himself achieved Twitter fame during his time in Syria as he posted regular tweets and photos from the battlefield, often accompanied by humorous observations in an iconically ironic, internet-native style. He was among the foreign fighters profiled by the Rolling Stone in 2017, which called him an anarchist, much to his chagrin.
In the interview with YRIS, Belden, an avowed communist, discussed his own personal experiences during his time with the YPG, the situation facing Kurds in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, and the political future of the militia group and its associated political party, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat / Democratic Union Party).
Elisabeth Siegel: To start out, could you give a short rundown of how you got involved and why you wanted to join the YPG?
Brace Belden: I think, in 2014, I read about the story of this woman Ivanna Hoffman who went there and fought with a Turkish group within the YPG, the MLKP (The Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Turkey). She died in a fight, and there was a hubbub in Leftist media about it, and it got me more interested in it. After a long time of trying to figure out how to go, I went. My political ideology — communism, specifically a kind of Marxism-Leninism — that I subscribe to isn’t the same as the YPG, but it is the same as some of the groups that fight alongside or under them, so I went with the intention of joining them. I was there a little over six months and got back about a year and a couple weeks ago.
ES: You came back before the big push to liberate Mosul, right?
BB: I was part of the beginning of the push to liberate Raqqa and then I fought on a different front.
ES: So, what specific area of the fighting were you part of during your time with the YPG, and what was day to day life like on the front lines?
BB: Originally I was part of this push at Ain Issa, two hours south of Kobane, and all rhetoric we were getting was saying we were going to go West to connect with Afrin, and we thought that going south was just a feint at first. We covered a lot of territory, because it’s pretty barren desert out there — it’s not like we have to fight for every inch or anything. We took this big town, ten small villages around it, and then I went to a different front that was west of there called Qalta and then fought around there.
It sucked. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was really hot and confusing. And some strange maneuvers on everybody’s part. It’s scary. It’s pretty much just like you read about, it’s not fun. The second part, I was with a different unit and that was a little more organized.
ES: I hear they’re making a Jake Gyllenhaal movie about it.
BB: Not if I can help it. Apparently if you just write a story about someone the author can sell the rights to it, which is surprising… and that’s what happened to the Rolling Stone article, but I think I made a big enough stink so that it probably won’t happen. 1% of movie ideas that get bought or whatever actually get made, so I’m not too worried about it. However, if it does start, I’m just going to do something really embarrassing and then have them cancel it out of shame. Although they’re smart and so would just change the name and story.
ES: Were you surprised at the level of popularity that your Twitter account, with the handle of @PissPigGranddad, got?
BB: Sort of. I was at first, and then it kind of made sense. I speak the same language of people of a certain age cohort and sensibility so people kind of latched onto that. A lot of political stuff is spoken or transmitted rather mechanically, and I am too stupid to talk like that. I think that people got a better insight because of the way I spoke.
ES: Are you still in touch with anyone that you met in Syria?
BB: Quite a few people.
ES: Are they still there?
BB: Some of them are. Some of them are back. I went to a funeral for a buddy named Jack Holmes and saw a lot of guys that I hadn’t seen since I was over there.
ES: So now, in terms of what the YPG has currently been facing, from your perspective of having been there on the ground, what do the areas that the YPG liberated look like on the ground in the wake of the invasion of Afrin?
BB: Turkey sees YPG as its main — or only — enemy in Syria. While the Syrian government is an enemy, it’s much more difficult to attack a sovereign state rather than a separatist group up north — well, semi-separatist. The Westernmost region of the Kurdish controlled zones has always been separate from the main bulk area where the YPG and the PYD (Democratic Union Party) are. It was separated first by a large group of ISIS fighters, and then Turkey came down with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is the regular FSA with Turkish army involvement. They came down there and replaced ISIS in a weird quasi-battle, and it was even more isolated after that.
That happened like a year and a half ago. Ever since then, Erdogan has been ratcheting up the rhetoric around Afrin — “We gotta destroy these terrorists on the borders,” stuff like that — and they staged some cross-border incidents, one of which I saw, but that was in the east, near Kobane. They would fire across the border and try to provoke YPG, and obviously the Turkish army, which is the largest or second largest army in NATO, is a little better equipped. Any sort of retaliation they would point to as the reason they would need to invade.
They started massing tanks and troops near the border with Afrin, and then invaded. There was no hope that YPG would ever beat them — you’re going against a NATO army with an airforce and advanced weaponry. They’ve lost 1500 people, and after two months, pretty much lost all of Afrin city and most of the territory. They still have a little bit where they share a front line with a Syrian government-aligned force. The main Turkish plan is to make this rebel protectorate up north linking the Euphrates Shield area at Al Bab, which is sort of the center of the north, with the new Afrin-based FSA zone.
ES: What has been the effect on the Syrian Kurdish groups of the recent referendum with the Kurdish population in Iraq, and what that has meant for Kurdish unity or separatism?
BB: The way that I sort of saw it, and the way that a lot of people interpreted the referendum, was that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has been ruled by the Barzani tribe for a long time and are growing increasingly unpopular. The peshmerga’s salaries hadn’t been paid in a year, and the oil revenues were clearly being sapped by members of the Barzani family, and tensions with the central [Iraqi] government were increasing. I think that the ruling party, the KDP, saw their influence ebbing. They weren’t doing very well and needed to shore up some support. They assembled this bullshit referendum, which I don’t think anyone really believed would succeed, and which of course would not, and people voted for it, but nothing happened. [The KDP] basically tried to exacerbate tensions with the central government to shore up support at home. And it didn’t work, it just discredited the government more.
For overall Kurdish unity, the left-wing Kurdish groups that are involved with the Kurdish freedom movement, like the PKK, had a cautious view towards it — “We don’t support the referendum completely, but people should vote for it if they want to” — which is a pragmatic thing. The baseline, non-super-ideological Kurdish nationalists will vote for this — like, people who support the PKK but also want Kurdish independence — and I think [the PKK took that stance] not to alienate their base. They sort of played it quiet on that.
ES: Having spent time with the YPG, how do you reflect on the way Kurds are treated or referred to within the scope of domestic American politics?
BB: The American government treats Kurds as a monolith. They’ll just say “Kurds” when they’re talking about pretty wildly different groups and different political alignments. They mean “Kurds everywhere but Turkey,” because they never talk about those Kurds. It’s funny, with the YPG and the way they’re portrayed in the media, it really depends on who’s talking about them. You’ll see these really idealistic takes from every side, from left wing to right wing — they have no basis in reality. The American government always tries to isolate these minorities and then boost them specifically to divide people in certain regions, like the Hmong in Vietnam and stuff like that.
The YPG is a left-wing nationalist movement. They use a lot of words like democracy, which has a different connotation to them. They don’t mean liberal democracy, and I think that a lot of American politicians — I mean, some of them are dumb, and some of them are cynical, sort of use that and use the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” which is a total f—ing sham. They try and use the Kurds as, “These are the civilized people in that area. They’re not like the Arabs. They’re different,” as their main point. I think a lot of it has to do with cynicism and then racism, the way that the American government talks about them and tries to use them. They think they’re the most palatable group in the region for their audience.
ES: Yeah, and then there’s those articles about the YPJ [Women’s branch of the YPG]…
BB: Those ones are really weird. Any sort of article written about the YPJ is either by someone who is breathlessly regurgitating YPJ propaganda. And like, I’m for YPJ propaganda, but it’s creepy to see people repeat it basically word-for-word. Or [they’re written by] really horny people. The worst kind of writers. It’s super weird. The way that articles are written about the YPJ creep me the f— out.
ES: What do you see as the political future of the group that you were involved with?
BB: It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the Syrian Civil War. The worst case scenario, and kind of a likely one, is that the Turkish armed forces will probably move east and try to take out all of northern Syria, like the YPG-held areas. I didn’t mention this before, but the invasion of Afrin by Turkey came about because they made a deal with Russia over what seemed to be Syrian government objections to have rebels surrender in Douma and Ghouta and move to Idlib in exchange for Turkey getting free reign in the north or the northwest. I hope a similar deal doesn’t happen. Russia seems to play both sides in this. They flew a YPG leader to Moscow and gave him a medal in a sort of semi-secret ceremony, but then a month later gave the green light for Turkey to invade the north, so who knows.
What most people I know want to happen is, they want the Syrian government to come to an agreement with YPG or PYD for not quite an autonomous area in the north but one with more minority rights and representation for the political parties they’ve started. Whether that’s likely I don’t know, because the US government certainly doesn’t want that to happen and has recently been trying to inflame tensions with SDF, the front group that the YPG started. The group has a lot of either reformed FSA people or just tribal militants — and I don’t mean tribal in the insulting way, but literally they’re in tribes, that’s how they refer to themselves — and a lot of those tribal elements especially those from Deir al-Zour and rocket country are political and occasionally descend into gangsterism. I think the US is trying to use some of those unreliable elements to fight the Syrian government to inflame tensions between the SDF-YPG and the Syrian government. It’s their last chance to topple Assad, which won’t work.
ES: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readership about the Syrian Civil War or your personal experience?
BB: I hope [the YPG] are able to overcome what I think is mistaken tactical alliance with the United States, because if history guides us at all, which it should, that won’t turn out well for them. I think that the only hope is to come to an agreement with the Syrian government, and they should do whatever it takes for that.
There’s a lot of cyclical propaganda in the US government — Assad is, of course, the devil and the “Free Syrian Army is democratic” rhetoric — but that FSA line disappeared when it became too obvious that most of them were in Al-Nusra. If there’s one thing [my time in Syria] taught me it’s just that all of the press that comes out in America and a lot of the takes on the Syrian Civil War you see from America or even Lebanon-based writers is just bullshit. A lot of it is almost state department propaganda, which makes it very difficult to navigate any news sources for actual truth about it. I hope the conflict ends soon.