A group of self-styled British revolutionaries who travelled to Syria to help build a democratic society in the Kurdish north say they will defy new Government legislation which would see them prosecuted on terrorism charges.
The Home Office revealed in May that it planned to designate northern Syria a “no-go area” and that British citizens would have 28 days to leave or face a 10-year prison sentence if they attempt to return to the UK.
It said the law was aimed at tackling terrorism, but the volunteers accuse the Government of failing to distinguish between Britons in the jihadist enclave of Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, and those working in the northeast alongside Kurdish groups that helped defeat Islamic State (Isil).
The law would mean just travelling to or remaining in the northeast would be considered a terrorist act, despite the UK partnering with the Kurds in the coalition against the jihadist group.
Dozens of Britons have been drawn to the autonomous region, known as Rojava: some to fight with the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) against Isil, while others were attracted by their Marxist-inspired democratic, feminist, anti-capitalist project.
The volunteers have drawn comparisons to the International Brigades, the foreign fighters who travelled to Spain to battle Franco’s fascists in the 1930s and were made famous by author George Orwell.
More than 10 Britons are currently undertaking voluntary work on ecological and community projects as well as medical and media outreach.
The Telegraph last month spoke to three of them in the town of Derik on the border with Iraq, where they said they should not be criminalised simply for travelling to a warzone.
“On the one hand, (the Home Office) talks about the UK's need for international co-operation with the Kurds in fighting terrorism. And on the other, it is punishing those of us who come here to do just that,” said Matt Broomfield, 25, from Shropshire, who left the UK more than a year ago after working in media.
Mr Broomfield has supported local media projects to help get news from the region out to an international audience, as well as writing articles for the British press.
“It’s a ham-fisted attempt to prosecute jihadists under a catch-all law after previous laws proved inadequate,” said Mr Broomfield, referring to the fact that only one in 10 returning Isil fighters have been prosecuted upon return to the UK.
The legislation was announced by new Home Secretary Priti Patel’s predecessor Sajid Javid, but, the Telegraph understands, she will support it.
It is not clear when the 28-day grace period will begin, but it will mark the first use of new powers given to the home secretary in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which became law in February.
“I won't be leaving, regardless of the Government’s draconian actions, as I consider their threats toward those in northeast Syria illegitimate and worthy of resistance,” Mr Broomfield told the Telegraph.
“Yes of course we're very worried - less for ourselves than for what this means for northeast Syria's status in the future and the future of international solidarity with Rojava.”
The Kurds have forged something of a proto-state under the cover of the Syrian civil war, inspired by the revolutionary socialism of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organisation by the US.
However, their experiment in self-rule has faced threats from Turkey to the north and Syrian government forces to the west and south, as well as a more immediate threat from Isil sleeper cells hiding among them.
Some have accused the volunteers of adventurism and naivety, accusations those here dismiss.
“I’m not just here trying to get arrested, I want to be part of important revolutionary change,” said Theo Stevens, 29, who has been volunteering at the Internationalist Commune of Rojava, a civil society organisation, since arriving in the country five months ago. “Isil may have been defeated territorially, but there’s a lot more work that needs doing than fighting.
“When I heard about the new law I thought about it for 30 seconds before deciding I couldn’t just abandon all we’ve done here,” Miss Stevens, who had been involved in Bristol’s anarchist and Leftist movements before moving to Syria, said, using a pseudonym.
She said her family has a history of participating in revolutionary struggles. Her great-uncle fought in the Spanish Civil War and went on to write the well-known memoir, A Shallow Grave.
“My mum isn’t too worried about the new law, she trusts my decision. She met others in the community at Anna’s memorial and got to see how strong it is,” she adds, referring to Anna Campbell, from East Sussex, who was killed during the Kurds’ battle against the Turkish army and Turkey-backed rebel forces in the northern Syrian city of Afrin last year.
Anna had been a friend of Miss Stevens’ back home, who had encouraged her to come to Rojava before she died.
Eight Britons died fighting in Syria alongside the Kurdish YPG, including Anna, and Jac Holmes from Dorset, who stepped on a mine the day after helping liberate Isil’s “capital” Raqqa.
Another volunteer said she thought the Home Office’s decision would discourage other Britons from joining them, which she said was a “shame”.
Mr Broomfield said the volunteers were planning to raise their concerns in Parliament via an Early Day Motion. However, he said he was also prepared to fight his case in court should the Government decide to prosecute him.
“The Britons who joined the Kurds went to fight Isil under the RAF in a coalition of which the UK was a part,” Labour MP Lloyd Russell Moyle, who visited Rojava last year, told the Telegraph. “Those still with the Kurds are participating in pluralistic, democratic and feminist social revolution in the heart of a region gripped by authoritarianism and sectarianism.
“This is a lazy law that will cause more harm than good. Locking up returning NGO workers and volunteers is absurd, antithetical to our values and a blow to development in the Middle East.”