Islamic State: The US volunteers who fight with Syria's Kurds

By Jim Muir
BBC News, north-east Syria

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media captionJeremy Woodward: "Killing an Isis member is doing a good deed to the world"

Mingling with a group of fighters from the Syrian Kurdish YPG near the front line with Islamic State (IS) in north-east Syria, the one they call Sipan, with a stubbly beard and dressed in the same combat fatigues, does not look like the odd one out.

But he is. When he speaks, it is English with a southern US drawl. Sipan's real name is Jeremy, and he is from Mississippi.

He has only been here a month, but already calls it his "home from home".

Jeremy Woodard is one of a tiny handful of American ex-servicemen who have made their way halfway round the world to join the battle against IS.

He lost everything he brought with him when his position at Jezaa was overrun by the militants, who held it for three days before being pushed back. He says he killed two of them.

"That doesn't make me feel like a bad person," he says.

"They kill innocent people daily. They rape women and children and sell them into slavery. Killing an Isis [Islamic State] member, to me that's doing a good deed to the world. All of them need to get wiped out.

"You can't talk to people like that. There's no reasoning at all. There's a war and we have to eliminate them."

'Good guys v bad guys'

Like the other American volunteers - who are not in one unit but scattered on different fronts over a wide area - Sipan followed the Syrian war on the internet and Facebook, and got in touch through social media.

He followed the trail blazed by Zagros, aka Brian Wilson from Ohio, who established contact with Kurdish go-betweens and made his way here via Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan a month earlier.

Brian is serving on another front, at Ras al-Ain, on the far west side of this large pocket in north-east Syria controlled by the YPG militia and its political parent the PYD, an offshoot of the Turkish PKK party of Abdullah Ocalan, whose picture is everywhere here.

"Some of the guys here speak a little English and they're teaching me Kurdish," Brian told me.

image copyrightJewan Abdi
image captionJeremy Woodard served in the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan

"I wanted to come and help the YPG fight Isis. It's not political. For me, it's simple: Isis are the bad guys, these are the good guys. The YPG aren't out to take anybody else's territory. They're just defending their own homes."

Like Sipan, Brian says he will probably stay a long time, though he has two children - 14 and 10 - with his ex-wife back in Ohio.

When we saw him, he had just come back from the funeral of a fallen comrade.

"The kids probably wouldn't understand if it happened to me," he said. "In fact, a lot of people back in the US probably wouldn't understand."

'Noble cause'

Half a day's drive to the east, Jeremy Woodard has already had some close shaves - he had a tooth chipped in a grenade attack - and is well aware of the possibility that he will be killed.

When I asked him what would be his cut-off point for leaving, he said: "My death!" And laughed.

"There's always that possibility," he said. "When I came over here, some people said it's suicide. They could be right, but I don't see it like that.

"I see it as doing a noble, good cause. If I may die, I know I came over here to try to help, so that's what I want."

Woodard's American family responds

Stephen Woodard, Jeremy's uncle, says his nephew is "just an average American guy" who wants to stop further IS atrocities. "He's doing the thing that a lot of us need to do - I mean the noble thing," Stephen told the BBC from his home in Texas.

Not everyone in the family knew of Jeremy's mission in Syria before he arrived in the Middle East. "Some were kind of shocked but all of us support him," Stephen said.

Stephen, who is also an Iraq war veteran, says he wishes he could join his nephew on the battlefield. He also says the Kurdish fighters desperately need extra funds.

"It could buy them equipment, buy them food … they need it. They're outnumbered against an enemy that's trying to kill us all."

He has not been able to contact Jeremy for two weeks because internet and phone services are down in parts of north-east Syria.

-Micah Luxen

Jeremy says what he misses most is his four-year-old daughter, of whom he had custody when he left.

"If I make it back, I'll set her down, hopefully she will understand by then that I was just doing my job, what I felt I had to do as a person, to stand up and fight back. Hopefully she'll understand. Hopefully my family will understand also... but at the moment, they're giving me a hard time.

"I'm living the kind of life I really want. It's not much, but I feel like I'm the richest person in the world right now, with what I have. Friends that you can actually count on - I mean you get shot at over here, you get bombed, but it's a chance you have to take."

He says other things he misses are: "Cheeseburgers, Coca-Cola, pizzas, getting in my car and just driving down the road... and not being shot at."

Tough opponents

Jeremy, who is 28, served as a specialist in a US army infantry battalion for 18 months in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan.

"This is completely different," he says.

image copyrightJewan Abdi
image captionBrian Wilson says he just wants to help the Kurds defend themselves

"Isis is much harder to fight. They're stronger, they have more weaponry, they have more financial backing. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban - they're like a baby unit, much weaker.

"We've got air strikes from America, but that's not getting the job done. More countries need to pull together and put troops on the ground. That's the only way it's going to get resolved. If not, it's just going to get worse."

Tiny in number though they are, the handful of Americans fighting for the YPG make a symbolic counterpoint to the hundreds of foreign jihadis signing up to fight for IS.

The YPG has no recruiting mechanism to attract foreign volunteers. Those who do come are not paid a regular salary. They get uniforms, food and accommodation. Jeremy Woodard says they gave him some money when he lost all his belongings to IS.

Although they are fighting the same enemy as the US state, they clearly had no official encouragement from the American authorities to come here, and they say they have had no contact at all with them.