The Online Left Goes to War

Stefan Bertram-Lee was an internet leftist. And then they went to Rojava and got a gun.

Stefan Bertram-Lee was fast asleep in their dorm at the YPG international training academy when the bombing started. It was around 3 AM, hours before dawn, when a friend woke them and their other classmates. All four Western volunteers were crammed into a tiny room, mattresses covering the floor. And now they were being ordered outside.

Still groggy, Bertram-Lee, who identifies as nonbinary, slipped on boots, grabbed an assault rifle, and filed out into the crisp night air of Rojava, expecting to be tested on how quickly they took their positions. “I thought it was just a drill,” Bertram-Lee recalls. YPG commanders had burst into their dorm before, shooting blanks and shouting intashar! to teach them how to respond under fire. They’d been in Syrian Kurdistan for three weeks at that point, having finished only the political portion of their training.

But when they stumbled outside and saw the flashes of light on the horizon, the cadets knew it was the real thing. The Turkish Air Force was bombing a nearby YPG (People’s Protection Units) base, part of their brutal “anti-terrorist” campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Even with only a couple weeks of training, Bertram-Lee and the other cadets kept their cool. “We all acted how we were supposed to,” Bertram-Lee says from their grandmother’s flat in the northeast of England, still impressed with how quickly they’d adapted to life on the front lines.

With hours to go before dawn, and desperate to keep the Turkish assault away from the academy, the YPG commanders told the cadets to walk out into the night and try to “look like shepherds.” I ask why. “In case there were soldiers out there with infrared. Not much you can do up against F-16s,” Bertram-Lee adds. “So me and this American Bernie Bro sat in a ditch until the sun came up.” When dawn came, they saw a black shape on the horizon — a chopper. Worried that it was another Turkish strike, they braced for the worst until they realized it was, in fact, American. Which meant, for now, a friendly.

While Bertram-Lee and the rest of the class made it through the bombing, twenty YPG and YPJ (the women’s militia) working at a media center just a few hundred meters away lost their lives. Five soldiers from another Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, were also killed that night in Sinjar. The death of those soldiers, the vast majority of them longtime cadre and close friends of Bertram-Lee’s commanders, cast a grim pall over the international academy, which had been miraculously spared in the bombing.

“It was my first taste of war,” Bertram-Lee recalls. It was the morning before their twenty-second birthday. They’d been in Rojava only three weeks. And they still had seven months left.

In combat fatigues over their compact frame, Bertram-Lee looks equal parts warrior and pop star. They have long, blond hair and striking features, and they speak with a cool self-assurance decades beyond their years. They’re patient with me as I stop them over and over again to work out the various Kurdish alliances, parties, and militias they themselves navigated in a war zone.

Bertram-Lee grew up, in their own terms, “extremely online.” They credit long hours on anarchist Reddit groups with a political awakening. Born in 1995 and raised in the north of England, ideology for a teenager like Bertram-Lee was a kind of intellectual shopping excursion, testing out various currents and manifestos. “The idea that there might be anything that would interest me in the northeast, in my village, or in my local town, was not even really something I bothered to consider, and I think I was right.” And while their stepfather struck with the miners, it all seemed part of a politicized northern England that had vanished long before they were born. “At some point, I was a member of the Liberal Democrats. I eventually found myself like a far leftist. I remember, embarrassingly enough, one of the main inspirations was probably this politics teacher when I was in sixth form, and he showed us The Baader Meinhof Complex, the film about the Red Army Faction terrorists, and I was like, ‘Wow, those guys are so cool!’ — which was definitely not the point of this film.”

It was in university that Bertram-Lee joined a small anarchist group, and in the summer of 2014, after their first year, they found themselves browsing the Syrian Civil War Wikipedia page, trying to make sense of the various forces involved in the struggle. “One group, it said ‘YPG,’ and it was like ‘libertarian socialists’ or something. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, well, I guess maybe there’s some people I could support in this war.’” Whereas roughly half the YPG Western volunteers join up simply to fight Jihadism, the other half are attracted to the revolutionary socialism of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader and founding member of the PKK, the party associated with the YPG.

In Öcalan, Bertram-Lee finally found a voice that cut through the online storm. Having built the PKK as a staunchly Leninist party, Öcalan pushed the organization in libertarian-socialist directions from his Turkish prison cell after his 1999 arrest. In this tension between old and new, the PKK was reborn. Unlike what Bertram-Lee had encountered on radical web forums, Öcalan promoted a practical-minded politics oriented toward patient organizing in real-world communities with real stakes and very real contradictions. This meant marrying a more traditional Marxist-Leninist focus on state power with a commitment to grassroots democracy, federalism, and the representation of minorities. And, unlike other radical ideologies, Öcalan’s was being tested right then and there in the cauldron of war — and it seemed to be working.

While much of Syria was being devoured by civil war, in Rojava, where the YPG were dominant, workers’ cooperatives, women’s community centers, and “cantons” governed by direct democracy were sprouting up everywhere. There were even experiments in restorative justice, a remarkable transformation for those who’d been living under Assad’s regime. “Öcalan’s the greatest philosopher of the twenty-first century,” Bertram-Lee says. “Not that there is a lot of competition.” But it was only after the siege of Kobanî that Bertram-Lee decided to take the plunge and join up.

After graduating in 2016, Bertram-Lee first moved to Greece. “I thought it was the best place to do all the contacts stuff without any police attention or police interest or police desire to stop me.” They started firing off emails trying to enlist, but nothing came of it until January 2017, when the YPG officially replied. “You had to fill out this weird kind of survey, like hundreds of questions, trying to ascertain if you’re a lunatic, which is … obviously, you could just lie, but it even has a personality disorder quiz in it, which is from some kind of a quiz site. And I knew this because I, obviously, as a very online person, I had done this exact personality disorder quiz in the past.”

Unlike other volunteers, Bertram-Lee was quickly accepted. They scrambled to make preparations for life in a war zone. “I bought protein powder and started running and stuff. I’ve been comically unfit my entire life.” For supplies, they picked up headlamps and military boots, as if packing for a camping trip. They bought a plane ticket to Munich and from there to Sulaymaniyah, in the southeast of Iraqi Kurdistan. Once they arrived, all they had to do was send an email to a local contact letting him know, and the next day, a man knocked on their hotel door and took them to a safe house. There they met another Western volunteer — a Canadian on his second tour with the YPG. His not-exactly-battle-hardened physique put Bertram-Lee at ease. “He was like a really skinny, nerdy guy, I guess like me but quite older.”

From there, an American and an Australian volunteer joined them, and they drove for hours through the mountains, avoiding checkpoints, until they arrived at the Tigris River in the middle of the night, ready to secretly cross over into Syria by inflatable raft. I ask Bertram-Lee if they were scared at this point. “I was excited, not scared. Just to get to this place that I had read so much about, where potentially I might find this amazing social movement that might be the future of socialism.”

After a crossing involving Peshmerga helicopters and a tense standoff with border guards, they made it to the training camp. There Bertram-Lee learned how to live a highly structured life under the YPG’s unique blend of ideologies, calling it “a strange mix of libertarianism and authoritarianism.” It wasn’t without some of the online luxuries of life at home, though, either. “During the Battle of Raqqa, they would download Game of Thrones each week at the headquarters and put it on a thumb stick and then would take it down to Raqqa and put it on the TV. And there was, of course, a British guy, like, ‘Hey, want some porn, mate?’ even though it was strictly forbidden.”

Lucas Chapman, a Georgia native and YPG volunteer, met Bertram-Lee there just as he was leaving Rojava on his second tour. “I just saw this really skinny person and immediately knew they were a Western volunteer. I’ve never seen a Kurd with a giant mane of blond hair like that.” Being of similar size and stature, Chapman tried to pass along his uniform to Bertram-Lee. When I ask if he means he was worried about them, Chapman says no. “Stefan seemed relaxed and comfortable.” I ask him if those are important qualities in a YPG volunteer. “Absolutely. It can be really intimidating being around the hevals for first time,” he says, using the Kurdish word for “comrade.”

The shock of going from an online lifestyle to running in the freezing cold, though, took its toll at first. When physical training began, Bertram-Lee struggled to keep up, but so did the rest of their platoon. “We’re suffering through it, but obviously they have this very, like, libertarian, communal style for how the exercise is going. You’re only going to do as much as the worst person can do. Never once did I have, like, a drill sergeant raising his voice to me. It was strange.” Instead, Bertram-Lee fondly recalls the morning ritual before training. “Everyone lines up, and the commander shouts in Kurdish, ‘Do you have any problems, friends?’” Bertram-Lee tells me, a warm smile on their face at the memory. “The cadets answer, also in Kurdish: ‘No!’”

After the morning workouts, the cadets would start what the Kurds called “ideology training.” “It wasn’t like a wounded nationalist’s tale of Kurdistan. They were explicit that until 1900, Kurds were not oppressed in what became Turkey, that the Kurds were actually loyal followers of the Ottoman regime, and that the Kurds committed genocide, mostly not against the Armenians, mostly actually on the other Christians like the Assyrians, opponents of the empire.”

At the end of their training, Bertram-Lee asked to join a Turkish communist militia, the Revolutionary Communard Party (DKP), in the hopes of getting more combat prep. In the DKP, women completely dominated the platoon. Most of the central committee was also female, which Bertram-Lee liked. “They didn’t have all these modesty rules and kind of sexual segregation rules. It’s much more relaxed there.” With so many men and women living in close quarters, I ask them how the militias keep romance from blossoming under all the stress. Bertram-Lee smiles. “Amusingly enough, from what I’ve heard, homosexual couples get punished less severely than heterosexual ones.”

But despite the additional training, Bertram-Lee was under no illusions about their combat-readiness. “I wasn’t very good at it. I was good at shooting. But battlefield tactics and reactions didn’t come naturally to me.” So, knowing their limits but still wanting to contribute to the struggle, Bertram-Lee joined a new front in the Syrian Civil War, one on which they already had years of experience: making memes.

“They gave me a laptop and resources. I treated it as a job. I had to be serious about it.” The memes appeared on a now-deactivated Facebook page entitled “Dank Memes for Democratic Confederalist Dreams,” where they quickly spread across social media at the height of the Syrian Civil War. One reads, “How other people are spending their summer vs me” above two photos: one on the left showing young women playing in foam, the other on the right depicting two YPG soldiers in balaclavas, “socialism will win” spray-painted on a wall behind them. Another, even more militant, one: “hey millennials! instead of dying of despair why not die in a people’s war!” Perhaps the dankest creation depicts a photo of a YPG international brigade, but is in fact a parody of 9/11 truther memes — an extreme meta-level meme: “wake up cucks rojava was filmed on a set in denver,” with accompanying text like “‘Diverse’ cast imposed by hollywood liberal satanic pedos” and “There’s no wind in syria, so how is the flag fluttering???”

My favorite of the Bertram-Lee memes, though, is a picture of a happy boy on the left with the text “When hiding from Turkish bombs in a shed,” echoing their night in the ditch helplessly watching the airstrike, “but Komutan [Turkish for ‘commander’] says he’ll put a film on.” The next panel is a photo of a bummed out and bored child with the punch line: “When that film is in unsubtitled Turkish and about prison torture.” “A very personal meme,” Bertram-Lee says of that one. “But my memes became the sharpest during the Afrin despair time,” they say of Turkey’s spring 2018 offensive. Turkey’s capture of Afrin, and the brutal anti-Kurdish reprisals that followed, dealt a severe blow to YPG morale from which they’re still reeling.

I ask Bertram-Lee about the night of that bombing outside the training academy, the relief they felt when they realized it was an American chopper and not a Turkish one on the horizon. After all, it’s strange for a radical anarchist to find themselves in a coalition with the US military. “It really felt like we were getting one over on the Americans, not the other way around. It’s like we would magically trick them into giving us exactly what we wanted, and in return, it didn’t seem like we were really giving them anything at all but defeating ISIS. There’s been some recent developments, which makes me feel that that’s not quite the case.”

After the Turkish bombing, a company of US Army Rangers turned up in armored vehicles to offer their condolences to the fallen. Bertram-Lee’s platoon sent some Westerners to try and coax supplies and weapons from the Rangers. “We were hoping to get some night vision.” I ask if the fight against ISIS softened their anarchist stance toward the US military at all. “It didn’t make me any more sympathetic to the American empire. But I’m more sympathetic to the average American soldier, and now I probably wouldn’t post on Facebook, like, ‘have a party for every dead American soldier’ or some edgy meme like that. It’s just not my style anymore.” Bertram-Lee sends me a photo of a bearded US Special Forces soldier wearing a Kurdish patch on his uniform. I ask them what they think of that. “It’s pretty funny,” they say. “Especially since it’s a YPJ patch,” the all-female militia.

I ask them if it felt like a letdown to go all the way to Rojava and go through intense military training, only to end up back online, posting away. “I wasn’t like, ‘I need to go to war,’ but obviously it’s a bit stupid to come to Rojava and not do that kind of stuff.” So when their chain-smoking commander asked them one day if they were ready to hold a frontline position in Raqqa where they were likely to see combat, Bertram-Lee said yes. But soon after arriving, thanks to blistering heat and a poor water supply, Bertram-Lee came down with typhoid and had to be evacuated to a hospital. It was clear then that they were too weak to be on the front lines anymore. “I never fired my weapon in anger,” they say with some regret. But Bertram-Lee still wanted to help. “I felt like I had a duty to preserve and produce things for the struggle.”

They were then asked to commission “martyr posters” for fallen comrades. Having never seen one, I search the term on Google Images and hold my phone up for Bertram-Lee. It’s a picture of a young Turkish man with close-cropped hair and a moustache in front of a yellow-and-green background, the YPG star on the left and the emblem for his battalion on the right. Bertram-Lee nods. “Yeah, I commissioned that one.” Nearly all the YPG martyr posters that come up in Google Image search are ones they helped make. “Quite a few of my friends were killed in Afrin.”

Not long after, Bertram-Lee received devastating news: their mother had had a stroke. And with that, they had no choice but to go home to England. “I was recovering from typhoid and ended up going back on Reddit and fighting with people being like, ‘Well, I’m in Syria right now, and this means blah blah blah,’ kind of bullshit. I got into an argument with another Kurdish page, which was just publishing out-and-out lies. And they were in turn threatening to report and take down my page. So I was talking to my friend Mehmet about that. He’d just come from London, he was a YPG journalist, one of the main guys in the British-Kurdish movement. I was talking to him about it, and he was like, ‘Leave it, mate, just leave him alone.’ I was going to reply to him, but then I saw a message the next morning that Mehmet had just been martyred in Raqqa. So I was like, ‘Yup, I’m not gonna do these stupid internet arguments anymore.’”

They send me a video of Mehmet’s funeral in London, the street cordoned off, a yellow YPG flag draped across his coffin as thousands mourn, holding up their fingers in the V-for-Victory symbol, which Bertram-Lee tells me can be a very dangerous thing to do in Turkey. It’s an incredibly stirring sight. “They buried him near Marx in Highgate Cemetery.”

Finally, it took Mark Zuckerberg to log Bertram-Lee off for good — at least for a little while. A week after the end of Turkey’s Afrin offensive, on Öcalan’s birthday, Facebook deleted Bertram-Lee’s account and meme pages, along with thousands of others. A 2012 Facebook moderating guide leaked by Gawker specifies under the section entitled “international compliance” that while Kurdish flags are to be ignored, “Content supporting or showing Abdullah ‘Apo’ Öcalan” results in immediate deletion. Anyone who wished Öcalan happy birthday, Bertram-Lee included, got the axe — the only “terrorist” named in Facebook’s one-page moderating cheat sheet.

While outlets like Vice might be attracted to the shock value of young Westerners taking shots at ISIS with GoPro cameras on their helmets and iPods blaring, it’s far less glamorous work — but just as sincere — that many of these volunteers have taken up off the battlefield. Brace Belden, aka PissPigGranddad, who was famously profiled by Rolling Stone and New York magazine, recently helped organize a successful unionization drive back in his home state of California. Georgia native Lucas Chapman is back in the Middle East, but now he’s traded in his AK-47 for civil work writing school textbooks. And Bertram-Lee is finishing a master’s degree at the University of Essex.

When I ask about their graduate work, Bertram-Lee sends me a PowerPoint of a recent talk they gave on left ressentiment and privilege theory. It’s full of custom-made memes, many salvaged from their time with the YPG. The opening graphic depicts a diagram of an erupting volcano. Tags at the bottom label the magma “Guilty Conscience,” “Left Liberalism,” and “Christian Morality.” The smoking geyser spewing forth is labeled with sarcastic phrases like “Westerners dying in Rojava show’s thier [sic] privilege,” “Paypal Me” and “venmo your black friends because that’s reparations.” One panel depicts a frustrated Daffy Duck spouting Foucault at Mickey Mouse, Bertram-Lee’s most popular meme from their time with the YPG. Mickey, however, answers confidently with a little Abdullah Öcalan: “the resolution to the problem exceeds the importance of revealing and analysing it.” It all reads like a frustrated and enraged howl in the face of the kind of online politics Bertram-Lee cut their teeth on.

I ask Bertram-Lee if they wish those types would do something as crazy and extremely off-line as joining the YPG. “It would be cruel to burden the YPG like that,” they tease. “But yeah. To be involved in any structured organization would be good for them.”

Today, Bertram-Lee no longer describes themselves as an anarchist. “It happened after leaving Rojava. I’m not really anything at the moment.” I ask what led to giving up something that was so close to the core of who they were. “The main thing that changed my political views was the YPG and the DKP. It’s definitely a political party in the sense that isn’t compatible with anarchism.”

To make their point, Bertram-Lee shows me a photo of YPG international volunteers holding up a banner on the outskirts of Raqqa reading “These Faggots Kill Fascists” along with an anarchy A and a rainbow pride flag. The guys who’d made the banner had shown Bertram-Lee before the photo went online. At the time, Bertram-Lee gave a hearty thumbs-up. But after the photo went online, it caused “a lot of behind-the-scenes drama” among the YPG.

I ask, as a nonbinary-identifying person, what they thought about that. After all, isn’t the YPG known for being progressive? “So I thought [the banner] was cool, I guess. But the drama it caused was bad. Arab units in Raqqa put out statements like ‘We are fighting alongside no faggots here.’ I heard a rumor ISIS even used it in their propaganda.” Overall, though, Bertram-Lee credits the photo with bringing attention to the progressive character of the struggle in Rojava. “But,” they add, “it was probably not the best way to advance the cause of LGBT people in Rojava.”

“The wording of that banner was probably the last gasp of my edgy anarchism.” What’s wrong with edgy, I ask. After all, it’s a remarkably brave thing to do when the consequences there are life-and-death. But Bertram-Lee is firm: “Loudly exclaiming, ‘We’re here and we’re queer,’ is insufficient.” Instead, they point to another slogan they wish had been scrawled instead — this one citing the executed Dutch anti-Nazi partisan Willem Arondeus: “Never let it be said that homosexuals are cowards.”

When I tell them that this kind of moderation would surprise a lot of Western lefties, Bertram-Lee seems amused. Since coming home, it turns out they’ve been drawn right back into online politics: “I’m deep into left Reddit.” This time, however, as one who’s quite skeptical of what they call “idpol,” whose adherents Bertram-Lee dismisses as “Third-Worldists without the Third World.” “It’s funny when Redditors call me a CHUD,” they say, using a popular internet term for alt-right troll, “despite also being a trans cutie.” At the moment, Bertram-Lee is a moderator on what they call “a very identity politics” Reddit forum, as well as a socialist one deeply skeptical of such things. “I need to pick a side soon.”

I wonder how they can fully reject identity when they themselves signed up for the Kurdish struggle. But Bertram-Lee tells me that just fundamentally misunderstands what the YPG is all about. “The entire point of Öcalan’s philosophy is a rejection of the Kurdish national project. His point is that national liberation struggles failed to liberate the people and only led to them oppressing other nations. His Kurdish revolutionaries were not going to finish the job of the Ottoman Empire.”

Lately, Bertram-Lee has been drawn to the writer Mark Fisher, who they call “possibly the clearest mind of our era.” As for Sanders and Corbyn, they’re not that optimistic, saying that Corbyn’s project has been “broken” by Brexit. “The YPG said that, yeah, if you go back to Greece or Britain or wherever, we will try to get in contact and try and get you something to do back home, so you do’’t just fall back into, like, decadent Western degeneracy. But, yeah, in the end, I fell back into decadent Western degeneracy because there wasn’t really anything for me to do.” Bertram-Lee does, however, now play soccer every day. “I was a hyper nerd before Rojava, had never been fit in my life. I didn’t realize how good it feels to be fit.”

But the non-Western volunteers have not been so fortunate. “Quite a lot of my friends were Turkish cadre, and so are underground, and a few others became martyrs.” When I ask Lucas Chapman how he feels about politics at home, he’s similarly pessimistic. “Bernie seems alright, but I don’t expect anyone except Trump to win. Democrats are more scared of barely-socialists than they are of literal fascists, therefore they won’t run a progressive candidate that people actually like. The same thing that happened last time will happen again.” I ask him what he thinks the American left can do about this. “Revolution, leftist politics, is all about real-world connections and educating the people, and we see so little of that in leftie communities today,” he says. “These days, if someone has a potentially problematic stance on even one issue, they often get completely written off.”

I ask Bertram-Lee what the YPG commanders might have thought about their Kurdish comrades dying in that air strike while the academy was training a bunch of young Western volunteers — all of whom, if they survived, would go back to their homes and, likely, “decadent Western lifestyles”: Is that a sacrifice they felt good about? Bertram-Lee’s confident the answer is still yes. Because, they explain, it was always about more than a small stretch of land and a people. “They were genuine about their belief in internationalism and their mission.”

“The YPG commanders were very clear with us that the numbers of Western volunteers was never going to be enough to make a difference in the war. That while the help is nice, one of the main reasons that they invite volunteers is so you can come to Rojava, become a much superior revolutionary through political education and the real experience of revolutionaries living communally and solving issues together. And help Rojava by going back to their own countries and working to transform them like Rojava has been transformed.”

I ask them how they think that compares to the Western revolutionary ideal at the moment. After all, isn’t outrage against and intolerance for the injustices of society intrinsic to radical politics? Bertram-Lee disagrees. “It’s about being very pro-social. When I was an anarchist, I was like, ‘Fuck society, fuck everything,’ like, we’re going to do loads of crimes to destroy the current order. Whereas with the YPG and these other Kurdish revolutionary groups, it’s like, we’re going to acknowledge that these social ties can be incredibly conservative and restricting, but social ties are the basis of how we’re going to build socialism. And I think if you’re one of these anarchists who are, like, saying, ‘Destroy society,’ don’t bother: neoliberalism is doing that for you.

Obviously, especially within, like, Western imperialist countries, there’s lots of reactionary stuff in the culture, but your task as a revolutionary is to find what’s good and push out the bad and make the good happen. Because there is good.”

I ask if they think they’ll be able to live up to the YPG’s expectations. They stop to think it over. “Yeah, I think I can manage that one day.”