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