[Marxism] How two U.S. Marxists wound up on the front lines against ISIS

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 1 06:51:34 MDT 2017

Washington Post, Apr. 1 2017
How two U.S. Marxists wound up on the front lines against ISIS
By Liz Sly

TAWILA, Syria — Late last year, two American Marxists traveled to 
northeastern Syria with the goal of experiencing firsthand the 
egalitarian utopia Syria’s Kurds are seeking to build.

Instead, they found themselves fighting on the front lines of a war, 
against the Islamic State and alongside the agents of imperialism their 
political convictions have taught them to despise.

For Brace Belden, 27, a florist from San Francisco, and Lucas Chapman, 
21, a Georgetown University history graduate, a journey intended to 
deepen their understanding of how socialism works turned into much more 
of an adventure than they had anticipated. They fired guns, got shot at, 
and as they prepared to head home, have learned from news reports that a 
movie is going to be made based on their experiences, starring Jake 

Belden and Chapman are among hundreds of Westerners who have made the 
journey to northeastern Syria over the past two years to volunteer with 
the Kurds, which is not illegal in the United States. Many of them are 
U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who want to get into 
the fight.

Some, however, like Belden and Chapman, are idealists, intrigued by the 
new society the Syrian Kurds claim to be building. The two men, who did 
not know each other until they arrived in Syria, say they had intended 
to immerse themselves in the community structures being established by 
the People’s Democratic Union, the Marxist-inspired political party that 
controls northeastern Syria.

After an arduous trek through the mountains to circumvent controls on 
the border between Syria and Iraq, they completed an obligatory, 
month-long training course in ideology, language and basic military skills.

Then they were given uniforms, assigned to the heavy weapons unit of the 
party’s military wing — known as the YPG, or People’s Protection Units — 
and dispatched to the front line outside Raqqa, the Islamic State’s 
self-proclaimed capital. There they became part of the ongoing, 
U.S.-backed offensive aimed at encircling the city that is expected soon 
to lead to a final assault on the Islamic State’s most symbolically 
important possession.

It wasn’t always as exciting as it sounds. When we met them in late 
November at an abandoned farmhouse in a pinprick of a village north of 
Raqqa, they were sipping tea in the bright winter sun, smoking 
cigarettes and waiting for something to happen. A chicken slurped on the 
remnants of their previous round of tea, discarded on a tray nearby. A 
couple of mortars exploded, too far away to be of concern.

“It’s fairly boring,” said Chapman, who had been living in Washington 
until he graduated from Georgetown last summer.

“It’s really boring,” said Belden, who sold potted plants and flowers in 
San Francisco before deciding he wanted to witness the practice of his 
Marxist beliefs. “It’s true what they say about war — that it’s 10 
percent action and 90 percent waiting for something to happen.”

At least in the early stages of the Raqqa operation, now in its fifth 
month, the Islamic State put up little resistance, choosing instead to 
plant booby traps and fire mortars to slow the advance of their enemies, 
but avoiding direct confrontation.

As novices to war, both men seemed relieved that this was the case. 
Though they had not met before showing up together at the training 
course last October, they had since bonded over their shared lack of 
experience in all things military, and their befuddlement at finding 
themselves riding into battle equipped with weapons they barely knew how 
to use. Their unit possessed some truck-mounted guns known as “Dushkas,” 
a makeshift armored vehicle and some light artillery, which it wasn’t 
their job to fire.

“Anyone can learn it, if they want to. A life of floristry has 
definitely prepared me for this,” Belden said, meaning the opposite.

They had, however, fired the AK-47 automatic weapons that were issued to 
them. “If ISIS are being shot at by a weedy guy like me, they must be 
losing,” said Belden, who doesn’t think he killed anyone but can’t be sure.

Chapman said he had nearly opened fire on an ISIS fighter, a man with a 
big beard who looked suspicious from a distance of about 800 yards, but 
his commander ordered him not to, so he didn’t.

The growing U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria is one of the 
reasons Belden and Chapman have decided to head home soon, despite 
intentions expressed earlier this year to stay for the final Raqqa 
offensive. The YPG has forged a close military alliance with the United 
States, which has about 1,000 troops serving alongside Kurdish and Arab 
forces and is expected to send 1,000 more.

Though they rarely encountered the U.S. forces, the American presence 
was disconcerting for committed Marxists dedicated to the overthrow of 
the Western capitalist system.

“As a Marxist, I have to get used to contradictions. It’s more a case of 
two interests aligning temporarily,” said Belden, who does not believe 
the alliance will last. But, he said, he wouldn’t fight alongside U.S. 
ground troops. “I do oppose all American presence in Syria. The U.S. 
Army and Marines represent something totally reprehensible to me.”

Chapman fears the United States will eventually abandon the Kurds and 
their socialist experiment after using them to conquer Raqqa. “They’ve 
betrayed the Kurds before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they do it 
again,” he said. “They’re occupiers and imperialists.”

Other aspects of their experience jolted the assumptions they had come 
with. They were perturbed by the relish with which the YPG greeted the 
U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, who is being hailed within 
the secularist group as an enemy of Muslims. Chapman is an observant 
Jew, and one of his hopes was to find a way to bridge the gulf between 
Muslims and Jews by demonstrating his solidarity with Islam. Instead, he 
found himself fighting alongside people who denounced Muslims.

“There’s a lot about it that’s not utopia,” he said. “It’s disappointing 
when people say things like ‘All Muslims must leave.’ ”

After their spell on the front lines together, he and Belden parted 
ways. Chapman joined a medical unit, which he said he found more 
rewarding than fighting. Belden teamed up with a different militia, 
called the United Freedom Forces, or BOG, founded by Marxist Leninist 
Kurds from Turkey. With them, he said, he found some of the socialist 
kinship he had been seeking, as well as more action on the battlefield.

They have now reunited for the journey home. Chapman, who has learned to 
speak Kurdish, hopes to work with Kurdish organizations in the United 
States. Belden wants to marry his girlfriend and return to Syria with 
her — to join a Marxist-Leninist political organization, not to fight.

He also has another wish — to halt production of the planned movie, 
which is based on an article in Rolling Stone called “The Anarchists vs. 
the Islamic State.” The proposal for a film to be directed by Daniel 
Espinosa and starring Gyllenhaal was recently announced by the Hollywood 
Reporter. Belden, who says he is not an anarchist, was as surprised as 
all of his friends when he found out about it.

“I’ve got to stop this movie. It’ll probably be exploitative and 
orientalist. It will taint everything I do,” he said in a message as he 
prepared to leave Syria this week. “I’m a communist. I don’t want fame.”

More information about the Marxism mailing list