British Volunteers Killed in Ukraine Were Prosecuted for Backing Kurds Against ISIS

When two British volunteers died in Ukraine this month, they were duly hailed for selflessly joining its fight against invasion. Yet both men had also faced terrorism charges for supporting the Kurds — showing the double standards of British foreign policy.

The funeral procession for Kurdish journalist Mehmet Aksoy on November 10, 2017, in London, England. (Matthew Chattle / Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Two British volunteers recently died in Ukraine, and were duly hailed for their selfless commitment to defending the nation against Russia. Yet the deaths of Dan Burke and Sam Newey also cast a spotlight on the British government’s quite different attitude to the conflict in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), with its policy of persecuting internationalists who travel to the region to support its linked battles against both ISIS and Turkey.

Prior to traveling to Ukraine, both men had been caught up in a wave of repression targeting UK nationals with links to the direct-democratic, women-led “Rojava revolution” and in particular Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). They suffered irrevocable harm and distress through this official persecution — even though the UK is formally allied with the YPG in its fight against ISIS.

Dan Burke spent seven months jailed on remand on terror charges — that is, for fighting against ISIS — before the case was abruptly dropped. Sam Newey, then just 19, was charged despite never even planning to go to Syria. According to those who know them, this ill-treatment played a part in their decision to join Ukraine’s defense.

Sam’s brother Dan Newey knew and fought alongside Dan Burke in Rojava and served alongside both men in Ukraine. For him, international volunteers in both conflicts should be regarded as heroes. He says: “The free peoples of Rojava were the barricade between ISIS and the West. Without their sacrifices, ISIS would have inflicted more suffering and chaos, and the same can now be said of Ukraine. This is all of our struggle — we must resist authoritarianism at any cost.”

But the UK treats British participants in the two conflicts rather differently. In a statement, the Legal Working Group for the UK’s Kurdistan Solidarity Network (KSN) argues that while the circumstances of their deaths differ, both Dan Burke and Sam Newey were willing to risk their lives to defend values the British government claims to share. And yet, the KSN says, “both men faced excessive harassment and targeting by the UK government and security services, on the basis of their links to the Syrian Kurdish movement, in that region’s own legitimate struggle against occupation and ethnic cleansing.”

Anti-Fascist Internationalism

The Syrian Kurdish movement inflicted the first major defeats on ISIS, establishing Kurdish-led autonomy in cities liberated from the Salafist terror group. Throughout this conflict, international volunteers were actively welcomed in both the military and civil spheres. These volunteers are seen as “internationalists,” standing in the lineage of twentieth-century anti-fascist struggles such as the Spanish Civil War, as thousands of sympathizers from all across the globe arrive to learn, offer support, and risk their lives. Seven British men and one woman lost their lives in the war against ISIS and Turkey, serving alongside scores of other UK volunteers.

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is avowedly left-wing, and an observer member of the Socialist International, working to implement a unique program of grassroots, women-led governance known as “democratic confederalism.” This doesn’t mean that all volunteers share the same ideology, and particularly in the early years many people were more simply drawn to the region due to its prominent role in the war against ISIS. Nonetheless, to the PYD, this conflict was an existential war against a fascist, misogynistic would-be state. All the “internationalists” were part of one anti-fascist struggle, and few were left unmoved by their contact with the Kurds’ bold, progressive vision for the Middle East.

The Syrian Kurds’ ability to withstand ISIS won them limited international support, with their existential war to save their homeland from ethnic cleansing simultaneously functioning as an anti-terror operation conducted on behalf of the West. The US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS recognized that victory was impossible without cooperating with the leftist Kurdish movement, and began providing airstrikes and limited training, funding, and logistical support — a modern “popular front,” uniting revolutionaries with liberal capitalist forces against fascism.

It was in this context that Dan Burke traveled to Rojava in 2017. Burke was a former member of an elite British Army paratrooper regiment who had deployed to Afghanistan, before being driven to join the YPG’s existential war against ISIS following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing which killed twenty-two people in his hometown. Burke met Dan Newey early in his tour in Rojava, where he not only fought ISIS with backing from Royal Air Force air strikes, but reportedly provided anti-ISIS intel to the British intelligence services.

In March 2019, the Syrian Kurds were finally able to announce the eradication of ISIS as a territorial force. Burke, who had already returned to Europe, might have expected a hero’s welcome — or, at least, to be left alone.

Attempted Persecution

But the Kurds weren’t only opposed by ISIS. Turkey had long been violently opposed to any Kurdish self-determination, and the “Rojava revolution” — which united millions of Kurds, Arabs, and minorities in a Kurdish-led federation just across the border — was a nightmare come true for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian Turkish government.

In 2018 and 2019, Turkey launched two successive, devastating invasions against the region, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians as part of a systematic campaign of demographic change. In occupied regions, the progressive, Kurdish-led administration was replaced by a patchwork of Turkish-backed jihadi and criminal militias, including several sanctioned by the United States for committing war crimes against Kurds, womenm and Yezidis, while sheltering scores of former ISIS members.

As a result, international volunteers in the region now found themselves facing down the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member with the second-largest army: Turkey. While the UK had long criminalized the Kurdish movement as a whole, and disapproved of UK volunteers traveling to Rojava, this shift steadily emboldened prosecutors to target UK internationalists. Then–home secretary Sajid Javid announced never-enacted plans to make traveling to Rojava an automatic criminal offense, giving internationalists a one-month ultimatum to leave the region.

Dan Burke and Sam Newey were among half a dozen UK volunteers to face a string of terrorism charges, as the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service tried (and failed at) a range of strategies to secure prosecutions. As Dan Newey was traveling back to Rojava to rejoin the fight against Turkey and ISIS, his brother and father were arrested and charged with financing “terror,” on the basis that his family had sent him a gift of £150 while he was holidaying en route to Syria. While Dan Newey himself made it to that country, Dan Burke was also detained, accused of facilitating Dan Newey’s travel and aiming to return to Syria himself.

The case ultimately collapsed, but not before Dan Burke had spent seven months on remand in jail, suffering the bitter indignity of being labeled “Jihadi Dan” despite devoting his life to fighting Jihadist terrorism. “I’m not a terrorist, you know I’m not a terrorist. I’ve done nothing but fight for this country. This is a f**king joke,” Burke told police upon his arrest. Sam Newey and his father spent months on bail, losing work and facing raids by police at home and university, in what the father, Paul, described as a “nightmare.”

Turkish Influence

To date, no UK citizen has been successfully prosecuted for joining the YPG. As Dan Burke’s lawyer argued, the use of anti-terror law “to prosecute British volunteers fighting against the genocidal activities of proscribed terrorist groups in Syria arguably goes far beyond the intention of Parliament in passing the legislation, and potentially brings the law into disrepute.” The UK’s formal ties to the Syrian Kurdish movement make any conviction highly unlikely. So why bring the charges at all?

It’s highly likely this systematic persecution is meant to appease the UK’s Turkish allies. The linked arrests came following Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Rojava and in the same month as president Erdoğan’s diplomatic visit to London. Notably, Burke’s lawyers claim that the prosecution was forced to withdraw its case after being asked to disclose evidence of Turkish pressure.

The failed prosecutions are only one way the British authorities work hand-in-hand with Turkey, undermining their nominal support for the Kurdish fight against ISIS. Iida Käyhkö, who researches the criminalization of the Kurdish movement for Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group, explains:

One of Turkey’s main intelligence priorities is the surveillance and disruption of the Kurdish movement, and Turkey pursues this priority aggressively with its intelligence partners, with the UK as a front-runner. The stress and fear endured by Sam Newey and his father throughout the investigation and prosecution should be seen as an absolute indictment of the use of counter-terrorism legislation to target those fighting against ISIS.

This reality was made apparent throughout the recent controversy over Finland and Sweden’s bids for NATO membership. Here, too, Turkey focused on the criminalization, arrest, and deportation of members of the Kurdish community in the Nordic countries as a quid pro quo for dropping its veto over the two states’ accession to the security alliance.

As Kaykho notes, Britain has long been particularly enthusiastic in its security cooperation with Turkey. The Kurdish community suffers regular, invasive home raids, while a controversial power established under Britain’s anti-terror law enables the police to question people without charge or the right to silence, enabling regular harassment of the Kurdish community and international supporters. I myself have been detained and questioned by British anti-terror police, as well as banned from the Schengen Zone, on the basis of my work and reporting from Rojava. These stops, which occur without the right to silence and without criminal charge, have been on the rise following Erdoğan’s reelection in May.

The two countries’ alignment as core NATO members scrabbling for power and influence on the fringes of Europe mean Britain is more than happy to cooperate with Turkey in criminalizing the Kurdish movement, securing concessions, security cooperation, and trade and arms deals in return. As a NATO member Britain relies on a “strong” Turkish state, and this state demonstrates and reinforces its strength through the repression of democratic expression and Kurdish self-determination.

Popular Front

The Kurdish movement continues to face ethnic cleansing at the hands of NATO’s second-largest army, with representatives advocating for a diplomatic “third way” between the warring powers. But a number of internationalists who fought in Rojava have traveled to Ukraine in a private capacity to fight in that country’s defense — Burke and the Newey brothers among them.

Their persecution by the British authorities contributed to this decision. In Burke’s case, Dan Newey says, “being treated this way by a country he had previously fought for gave him a new perspective on British foreign policy and the state as a whole,” while his brother Sam’s arrest opened his eyes “to a lot of the hypocrisy of nation-states and also the hypocrisy of some western Leftists” who have failed to take a clear position on Russia’s aggression.

In the same spirit as the Kurdish fight against ISIS and Turkey, Newey argues, the war against the Russian invasion is a “popular front” against authoritarian expansionism — the political alignment of the Ukrainian government or certain other international volunteers notwithstanding. “People have the right to self-determination and freedom,” he says. “Turkification and Russification follow the same doctrine and blueprint. Both seek to forcibly assimilate and destroy other cultures.”

As evidence of this ideological alignment between Turkey and Russia, Burke points to factors like an unprovoked war of aggression conducted under the guise of liberation; Turkish-Russian security cooperation; and crimes of feminicide like the “Rape of Bucha” and the abduction, rape, and murder of hundreds of Kurdish women by Turkish-backed militias.

All three men were partially driven to Ukraine through exasperation over the UK’s self-serving approach to foreign policy, but also based on common values which evolved through contact with the Kurdish movement. “It was in this spirit we traveled to Ukraine. Imperialism is wrong, no matter who perpetrates it,” Burke adds.

Internationalist Spirit

Sam Newey was killed on the front lines on August 31, while Dan Burke’s death on August 11 remains the subject of a police investigation, in which a fellow international volunteer is the prime suspect. In their statement responding to the deaths, the KSN’s legal group says:

Both men will now be remembered as heroes, losing their lives in defence of Ukraine. But both also faced state harassment and persecution which prevented them from living ordinary lives in the UK. The UK’s hypocritical support for Turkey’s war against the Kurds makes a mockery of the UK government’s claim to stand in support of democracy, self-determination, and fundamental rights [in Ukraine].

“In this moment of tragedy, we need to remember to ask the question: in whose interest is it that the British state aggressively pursues allies of Kurdish people under counter-terrorism legislation?” Käyhkö adds.

The British government pays lip service to the Kurds while enabling Turkey’s merciless persecution of the Kurdish movement. It finds its voice over the abuse of fundamental rights only when these “grave concerns” happen to align with s transactional geopolitical, financial, and security interests. When set against this self-serving, hypocritical approach, the spirit of selfless, socialist internationalism upheld by the Kurdish movement, and represented by Sam Newey and Dan Burke, is all the more essential.