by Christopher Helali and Judy Bello
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Chris Helali about his experiences fighting ISIS with the Kurdish militias in northern Syria. It was very interesting to see the way his direct observations of the war in Syria led him to change his assessment of the situation there. [jb]
Judy: Good evening, I’m Judy Bello and I’m on the administrative committee of the United National Antiwar Coalition and I’m also a board member of an organization called the Syria Solidarity Movement. And what we do is, we work to rehabilitate the reputation of Syria in this country, from a lot of the false and negative press reports. We also do some charitable work inside of Syria. So, you’re Christopher Helali and you are a Kurdish immigrant who traveled to Syria to join the Kurds fighting ISIS in the war there. Did you come here [to the US] as a small child or were you born here?
Chris: I was born here [USA]. My dad is from Iran. We are Iranian Kurds. Specifically, we are Lur on my grandmother’s side and Kurdish on my grandfather’s side. Lurs and Kurds are basically the same. My mom is from Greece.
Judy: Oh, wow. Very interesting background. Lots of interesting parents and grandparents. That’s right. Yeah. So, when we met in New York, you had told me that, I had actually thought you were a Syrian Kurd, but I can see with your background that you’re interested in politics in the Middle East, and, here, it’s hard to know how to respond to politics. So how did you come to be interested in the war in Syria?
Chris: I worked with refugees for about a year in Greece. I was living in Greece in 2016 and I was there also in the summer of 2015. I had met a lot of refugees who were coming over, specifically working with Kurdish refugees. Of course, I had known about the struggle in Turkey with the PKK, and about Abdullah Öcalan for a long time but I hadn’t been as interested because I was very much a Marxist Leninist. Since that time [early 2000s] the PKK had deviated from that. I wasn’t really as interested, but the more and more people were telling me about the stories of what was happening in Northeast Syria, the more I felt compelled. At this moment in time, I had turned towards anarchism and I said, “Oh, this seems interesting. It’s a revolution. Let’s go see what’s going on.” Eventually, you know, they told me come, come, come. Eventually I made the decision to go, and to join the Kurdish forces in Northeast Syria.
Judy: So, was this around the time when they were bombing the same city over and over again in Northern Syria? I’m trying to think of the name of, and all I can think of is Ain Al Arab, which is the Arab name, but anyway….
Chris: You mean Kobane?
Chris: Yeah. So, it was after Kobane. Kobane was basically in the Kurdish mind, and for the Kurdish people, a Stalingrad moment in Northern Syria. They considered it like that. They are under siege, the Kurds are there along with Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, everybody, it’s a very multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society in Syria. Everybody was talking about the siege of Kobane. I went to Syria right after Manbij was taken and after the Turks had come in to Al Bab and that area. So, when I finally arrived in Syria, it was the preparation for beginning the push towards Raqqa.
Judy: I want to stop you for just one minute. You refer to ‘they’ and ‘them’, So who did you contact in Syria? And were there people you already knew there, or did you find a way to contact the Kurds there?
Chris: In Europe, many of the Kurdish networks are pro-PKK. They have links to the PKK in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. These countries have various branches of the PKK. Eventually, they contacted the hevals (comrades). First, I went to Iraq to Sulaymaniyah. Then I went up the mountains to Gare which is the part of Iraq that borders Syria and Turkey. Its in that area of the mountains where the guerillas of the PKK are. We went to the camps, stayed a little while, and then eventually crossed over illegally into Syria. Once we had gotten over, it was territory that was under the control at the time of the YPG [Kurdish Militia associated with PYD]and PYD [Kurdish party in Syria affiliated with with PKK in Turkey]. We went there and that’s where we met with the cadre and all the people who were going to take us into training and then take us to the front.
Judy: So who was us? Were there other recruits there? That came –
Chris: Yeah, there were other internationals. As you know, the Syrian Civil War had brought internationals from all over the world, of a variety of different political persuasions. Whereas most of them came to be Wahhabi-Salafist jihadists against the Syrian Arab government and against the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad. Others, like myself, went with very radical left politics to fight against Wahhabi-Salafist jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia, the US, the UAE, and Israel. We wanted to go and we wanted to fight. Not everybody was anti-regime in our groupings. There were very many internationals who were pro-Hezbollah, pro-Iran, pro-Palestine, and pro-Syrian government. They just wanted to get in the fight against Daesh (ISIS). So they figured that was the easiest route, going to join the Kurdish forces against Daesh in the North while Hezbollah, the Syrian Arab Army, Russian forces, Iranian Quds forces, and other militias [Shia, SSNP, Syrian Resistance] were coming from the south.
Judy: Okay. That’s interesting. I noticed, though, that a lot of the Kurds were still receiving aid from the Syrian government up until the United States adopted them. They were receiving their weapons and provisions from the Syrian government.
Chris: You’re right. Many of the Kurds are not against the government of Bashar al-Assad and the central government in Damascus. In fact the government controlled areas in Qamishli, Hasakah, and other small portions in Northeast Syria. Various military bases, airports, and neighborhoods were controlled by government forces. We interacted with them. We would greet them and they would greet us. It’d be back and forth. Sometimes there was fighting between Kurdish forces and the Syrian government forces. But most of the time it was very peaceful. There was aid going back and forth. There were open lines of communication and people going back and forth in different neighborhoods. I think that the Kurds being a minority in Syria recognized that the Free Syrian Army were also Jihadists. People would say to me, “We’d rather have Assad in power than have some Sunni extremists in power who are going to cleanse the minorities” [Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Orthodox Christians, Shia, Druze, Alawis]. They didn’t want that. So many people that we met remained pro-regime.
Judy: Great. So then what happened when you got there? So you got through your training, I’ll let you go back to your timeline, now. You got through your training and you went into Syria, or you went into Syria and you met the people who are going to train you, that’s right.
Chris: Right. We met the hevals who were going to train us and were taken to the YPG international academy near Qereçox. Most of the time there was spent in Kurdish language classes and ideological training. We learned about Abdullah Öcalan, the history of the PKK, the new synthesis and ideology known as Democratic Confederalism [taken from Murray Bookchin]. This idea that Northeast Syria, also known as Rojava, could become an autonomous area inside the Syrian Arab Republic. That it can have autonomy and be able to achieve this distinctly anarchist version of a radical direct democracy. We also studied Jineolojî, a distinctly Kurdish type of indigenous feminism. We learned a lot of the ideological components of the party and the “revolution”. We also had a week of weapons training [Communist bloc weapons], tactics, and learning how we would be fighting against Daesh and any other jihadist forces.
After roughly a month, we completed our training and went to our various bases. I joined the International Freedom Battalion (IFB), which was a collection of Turkish and Kurdish communist parties and anarchist groups. Member parties included TKP/ML (Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist-Leninist), a Maoist party with its armed wing TIKKO; MKP (Maoist Communist Party), MLKP (Marxist-Leninist Communist Party) which are Hoxhaist and followed the Albanian line; DKP (Revolutionary Communard Party); RUIS and IRPGF (both anarchist formations with ties to Greece). While there were some anarchists, most of the unit was comprised of communists from the region and abroad. I was based with TIKKO and trained by the late martyr Nubar Ozanyan (nom de guerre Orhan Bakırcıyan).
We all joined up together and the IFB had its own base. Each member party had their own base where they trained, and then we all would, collectively, be on the front line fighting together. Now, many of those parties are considered terrorists by the United States and NATO members because they had historically attacked US military personnel, US interests, and/or NATO interests in Turkey itself because they’re at war with the Turkish government. So it was a very bizarre situation that all of a sudden these parties are terrorists in Turkey, but now they’re accepted in Northeast Syria because they’re fighting against Daesh along with the coalition. NATO is there. Everybody’s there. It was a very schizophrenic situation that if you’d cross the border into Turkey, you are now a terrorist and they were still attacking you. You came over to Northeast Syria, you were somehow a freedom fighter in the fight against Daesh. So, it required some level of cognitive dissonance to be able to understand how we could be at war with US-NATO imperialism, and at the same time, be allied in the larger structure with US-NATO imperialism in the fight against Daesh in Syria, who the US-NATO were supporting! It was kind of crazy.
Judy: Very crazy. So did you feel. Like, endangered by all this craziness or did you just kind of go with it?
Chris: I was committed to fighting against Daesh which committed heinous crimes against the Syrian people, especially against minorities. We had been in firefights with Daesh elements on our campaign to Raqqa. It wasn’t until we were nearing the end of Phase 4 operations, towards the final push to the city of Raqqa, that we saw a massive military buildup in the air and on the ground. We saw military war planes, A-10’s, drones, attack helicopters. At nighttime, we saw white phosphorous being used in Raqqa. I felt very upset. For example, I’ve been for Palestinian liberation since I was in the womb, you know. My family is very pro-Palestine.
So all of a sudden here I am. I protest against Israel using white phosphorus against Palestinians. Now, somehow, I am in this situation where I’m with a so called revolutionary force in Syria, and the same enemy is using white phosphorus against innocent people as well. The people in Raqqa were not all Daesh. There were also innocent Syrians as well, caught up in the mess of the civil war. So, I got really upset and there were a lot of long conversations. Denouncements. Comrades felt very torn and conflicted about the situation. And I felt that Raqqa, the campaign in Raqqa was way, way over the top in terms of military force. It was total warfare. It reminded me of world war two – just the complete decimation of a city.
Judy: Yes, I’ve seen it.
Chris: For me, having been through the streets and having seen it, I was disillusioned. I said, “I don’t want to be a part of this. This isn’t what I signed up for.” I’m a committed anti-imperialist. I’m committed towards the people, not towards these big interests who don’t give a shit about the people and the working class. Now we know, it was for the oil. Its not that the US needs the oil, but the US does not want the Syrian government or the Russian and Iranian forces fighting against the jihadists to have the oil. The US military presence was building up when I was there. You would see helicopters, armored personnel carriers.
I felt this is going to be a little enclave for the US. It’s becoming sort of a principality of the US. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I said, no, no. I’m against US imperialism. It wasn’t until I spent more time away from the front lines that I realized what people on the ground think. We went into the cities and villages, into regime neighborhoods and I felt that Bashar al-Assad is indeed the legitimate leader of Syria. The Syrian people deserve to have peace, not to have all these uninvited outside actors coming in and wreaking havoc. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have been invited by the legitimate Syrian government. The US-NATO, of which Turkey is the second larger member, were not invited by the Syrian government to enter the war. The Kurds who were in Syria, the Syrian Kurds were fighting, but then other Kurds from Turkey came. It became a smorgasbord of all these outside interests and outside actors coming in.
I felt that it was wrong. I feel that fighting against Daesh was good. Daesh is an evil force, evil against the Syrian people, evil against the minorities. Yet, it was evil created by the same people [US-NATO and the coalition] who were supposedly allied with opposing forces [Kurdish and others].
Judy: Were you aware at all, like I’ve seen videos and it’s pretty clear the United States rescued the remnants of Daesh from Raqqa.
Chris: Oh, I’m sure. I didn’t ever see that personally, but all of the Daesh fighters that we captured, we had to turn over to Kurdish security forces. Who knows where they went. I never saw where they went. We turned over all the fighters in the battles that I was a part of. I don’t know. They just went away on the back of a motorcycle. I never saw them again.
Judy: Oh, that’s interesting. On motorcycles?
Chris: – There were only motorcycles on the front line delivering messages, supplies etc. – So who knows? I have no idea. Also, Daesh was always on the border. They shared a border with Israel. Israel helped them. Daesh never attacked Israel.
Judy: No, it’s true. It’s still, they were on the Golan. Yeah. They were getting…
Chris: They were on the Golan. So, for me, you know, I quickly realized that although this was a struggle for the Syrian people, it was being hijacked by all these Imperial interests. You know, everybody wanted a piece of Syria. They wanted to turn Syria into Yugoslavia.
Judy: Yeah. Yeah. They did, actually. And that’s a very interesting way to look at it because Yugoslavia, they used economics to smash it as well as the war. They basically pitted them (various ethnicities and factions) against each other economically so that they couldn’t survive as one country.
Chris: You’re absolutely right. You know there were communists in Northeast Syria who were aligned with the Syrian regime, but they weren’t allowed to express it because the Kurds now had control over the northeast. It wasn’t that there was a unified sort of a popular mobilization in the northeast for the Kurdish forces. There were also factions within who didn’t want the US [and] NATO there. There are people who did want the US [and] NATO there. For example, I remember in one firefight, a US warplane bombed a Daesh position in front of us, and one of the Kurds said, “Heval Trump!” I said, “What the fuck?! Trump? He’s our enemy!” This conflict was ideologically everywhere.
Judy: The Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds in particular when I was in Sulaymaniyah in 2009 were still big fans of George Bush because he got Saddam Hussein too. Actually, I thought Clinton did it. They pushed, you know, the elder Bush, I guess, pushed, Saddam’s army back out of Iraqi Kurdistan when they were killing, torturing, and gassing people. So they really looked up to him. That’s part of the problem, you know. Everybody has their own little lens, right? They see what’s in the little area that they can actually see. And it’s very hard in such a complicated situation for people in general to see the whole picture
Chris: Of course. You’re absolutely right. You know, for me, no government is perfect. There might be legitimate concerns about the Syrian government, like any other government that we support and admire. But it doesn’t mean that you can go overthrow them and all of a sudden start bombing this and doing that and declaring independence. They don’t know that there are mechanisms and ways for a people to change their government if it so chooses. I just felt that this conflict was getting way out of control. This was only intensified by the fact that the U S started setting up military bases. For me, they were unacceptable. As an anti-imperialist, it was unacceptable. That’s why I eventually left. I didn’t want to go back to the conflict because Syria should have its territorial integrity. It should be unified. The Syrian people now should focus on rebuilding their country, on ending the illegal sanctions against their country. Then allowing all the foreign aid from China, Russia, Cuba, wherever, whoever is in solidarity with the Syrian people and the Syrian government, to help rebuild that country.
Judy: Yes. Well, hooray. I totally agree with everything you say, and I’m very impressed by your boldness and bravery and going out to find all this out for yourself.
Chris: Absolutely. When I was learning about the Middle East as a child, Hafez al-Assad was an extremely important figure. He was supported by the Soviet Union and was an an important figure in the Middle East. He supported Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the PKK, to establish a headquarters in Damascus. Hafez al-Assad! You know, if you look, there are photographs of Öcalan, the head of the PKK, with a photograph of Assad behind him. So I think that we should be indebted to the Assad family and to the regime for all that they provided for the Kurds in their struggle against Turkey, against NATO imperialism in the north because of the Turkish government’s gross abuses against the Kurds.
Syria supported the PKK, and it wasn’t until Turkey threatened Syria with invasion that Hafez al-Assad had to ask Abdullah Öcalan to leave Damascus. Eventually Öcalan was captured by the efforts of the CIA [US], with the support of Mossad [Israel] and MIT, the Turkish intelligence agency. The more I learned about the conflict and in talking to people on the ground, the more I realized that there was a genuine love of the Syrian government and a Syrian pride. For example, the Syrian Arab Republic sent a man to space with the Soviet Union. This was a source of pride for villagers I met. When I asked a local farmer, “What do you think about the Syrian government, and of Bashar al-Assad?” He replied, “Well, we went to space.” This little country that’s now being torn apart by all of these enemies went to space. Syria put a Syrian Arab man in space. There was that famous broadcast from space with Hafez al-Assad in the presidential office.
My journey has led me to believe that there’s a lot of propaganda against the Syrian Arab Republic, against the legitimate Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad since Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian people are pro-Palestinian, they love Iran; they love Hezbollah, they love Russia. They want all of the people who support them to fight against all of these jihadist forces. That makes them the pariah of US-EU-NATO imperialism. They don’t want somebody who’s going to criticize Israel. They don’t want somebody who’s going to not have their oil go to their coffers and their pockets. Where was Daesh’s oil going?
Judy: Of course. Well, I mean, Daesh was selling it through Turkey.
Chris: That’s right. A NATO ally. So for me it further solidified the fact that the mass media here, the misinformation, all of it was done again for a regime change war that was concocted in Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv. It needs to be said openly that the Kurds have a place in Syria. Armenians have a place in Syria, Assyrians, Druze, Sunni, Shia, Alawites, and Jews. Everybody has a place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Syria should be one unified nation. The Syrian people should decide their destiny, not the US, not Saudi Arabia, not the UAE, not Israel. Israel, for example, we know, we now know Israel is annexing the Golan Heights. They want to make Trump Heights up there in honor of Trump recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights. This is absurd. It only shows the truth behind this entire conflict, which was to dismember and tear apart Syria, because Syria remained a strong, independent Arab Republic.
Countries around Syria have been torn apart by US-NATO imperialism. US-NATO imperialism has dismembered Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, even after he did their bidding. Hillary Clinton laughing saying, “We came. We saw. He died.” Now they are selling slaves in Libya. There are actual slave markets. This kind of thing. You know, it’s horrible, horrible stuff. They tore apart Iraq. They are attempting to tear apart Iran. They tore apart Afghanistan. They tore apart Yemen. How many other places? Of course, Syria was on the hit list from the beginning. Even General Wesley Clark said Syria, after 9/11, was on the hit list [Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iran].
That’s the truth on the ground. I asked, why are all these US forces here? They were not interested in the Kurdish people. The US has never cared about the Kurdish people. Never. What would they care about? They care about their interests because in northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, what do they have – oil? That’s why all the big US oil companies are there. If they didn’t have oil or some other precious resource, do you think the US would be there? I don’t think so. I don’t think they would have cared.
Judy: And the US has a very sneaky presence in northern Iraq. They do not, at least when I was there 10 years ago, they don’t admit really that they have a strong presence there. And they, in fact, uh, I got sick while I was there and they tried to contact the embassy, my nephew bless his heart, from here. He’s a politician here. He tried to contact the embassy in Iraq and they said, there’s no embassy outside of Baghdad. So, so there he was. He was like, but how is that help? So it was very strange because he got a total run around as if they’d never heard of this place, basically. Like, we’d like to talk about an American who was legally in Sulaymaniya – but the response was nothing, nothing at all. And, they’re just very underhanded in their foreign policy.
Chris: Absolutely. For me, going to Syria, seeing it and living it and struggling there, I realized a deep love for the Syrian people. They are a proud, tough, and resilient people in the face of all of this war and conflict. I realized how horrible it was, what the jihadists did to the Syrian people, because of all the people who suffered most, they were the Syrian people. It wasn’t US, French German, and Turkish citizens. It was Syrian people who suffered.
Judy: That’s right.
Chris: Leaving and coming home and just dealing with my memories and with all of the pain and everything, the trauma of what I lived through, I realized that we should be defending the right of the Syrian people. We should be fighting for the Syrian people’s independence from all this aggression today, we haven’t been able to end the war. The US is still there. The US, coalition, and Turkey along with their jihadist proxies are trying to tear apart Syria.
What I think was underlying this in northeast Syria became apparent on one of my trips in the area of Al-Malikiyah (Derik), which is close to the Turkish border in the northeast. While traveling there we went to a facility that had been taken over by the YPG. While we were turning in, I realized, because I had lived in China for two years. (I have a master’s degree in Marxist philosophy from China) that there were Chinese characters on a sign outside the facility. I was amazed. It was SINOPEC, China’s largest state owned oil and gas company. From what I’ve learned since, China had invested and was actively helping the Syrian government to develop the oil in the northeast. There, we were sitting in a Chinese state owned oil company facility now controlled by the Kurds. Who was above the Kurds? The United States. I realized that China and Russia were trying to help the Syrian government, both before and during the war, along with other countries. Yet, the US is there to break them. The US doesn’t want the global South to challenge US hegemony.
Judy: Right. Well, it’s interesting about China because in Libya, one of the things that was happening right before the US and NATO started that regime change war against Qaddafi, killing civilians and ordinary people. Prior to the attack, China had most of the oil development in Libya, which has not only a lot of oil, but a really high quality of oil. So the United States basically had been cut out there. They, I’m sure, did not like that a bit. So that was time to do something about it. There’s a lot of this kind of thing. And I noticed too, you were talking about Turkey being a problem for the Kurds in Syria, but the Iraqi Kurds, right where you’re talking about and right along the border in those mountains you traveled through, are routinely bombed by the Turkish.
Chris: You’re absolutely right.
Judy: And it actually destroys, it destroys good farmland and it destroys the water supply coming out of the mountains. And that’s one of the things I learned when I was there. I met a woman whose husband was an Iranian engineer, an agricultural engineer. They were trying to figure out how to restore the soil. And some of these areas that had been so heavily bombed on the borders.
Judy: Do you speak Chinese?
Chris: Yes, a little bit.
Chris: A little bit.
Judy: Speak Kurdish? You said how you communicate with the ….
Chris: Yeah. We had taken Kurdish lessons. So I knew enough Kurdish to get by every day.
Judy: Oh, that’s good. So you didn’t learn that from your dad though. You learned that …
Chris: My dad speaks Persian [Farsi]. Under the Shah of Iran, the educational institutions, the educational apparatus of the state at that time dictated that all minorities should be fluent in Persian. So a lot of minorities who were educated in Iran during the Shah’s reign were taught in Persian and their languages were spoken in the home. By that time, Persian had become the lingua franca of all of the ethnic groups. So today everybody speaks Persian,
Judy: So are you planning on going back to the Middle East at any point?
Chris: I would love to go back to Syria, but I would like to go through Damascus. I’d like to see other parts of Syria. I’d like to really go on a delegation in solidarity with the Syrian people. I’d like to learn more about Syria. I’d like to learn more about the Syrian people. I really would like to give my thanks to the Syrian government for all that they’ve done to combat all of the enemies that have come to harm and destroy them. For me, my time there really opened a window into what the US does abroad.
Judy: Yeah. Its hard to go to these places even for me. And I wasn’t really in the war zone. Once you’re there, it’s really very clear.
Chris: It’s evident. It’s right there. It’s visceral in front of you. Now we’re seeing it on US streets. Whatever the US does abroad they do in our own streets. You see this after the brutal and horrific killing of George Floyd, [followed by] all of the justified and righteous protesters going out there and demanding defunding the police, community control of the police, etc.. You see what happens. The response is a militarized police force. That militarized police force is the same militarized police force that goes and tries to control all of the other countries all over the world.
Judy: That’s so true. And that is actually, so that is one of the strong points that I think UNAC really likes to focus on in our organization, anti-imperialism, and understanding that what’s happening here and what’s happening in the colonized countries or the countries that we’re making war on, it’s all one fabric, it’s all one fabric because there’s an elite, a very, very small number of very powerful people who really don’t care at all about the welfare of the masses of the people.
Chris: Absolutely. I’m very honored that our organization of which I’m chair, the Red Banner Anti-Imperialist Collective is a member of UNAC now. We have the honor to be a part of UNAC and to continue the anti-war and anti-imperialist line. To continue to combat US-NATO imperialism and aggression all over the world against all of the nations that are just seeking their self-determination and their independence from the hegemonic power of the United States.
This interview has been edited and expanded for clarity and content. You can see the video of the original interview here.
Christopher Helali is currently on the Coordinating Committee of UNAC as a representative from the Red Banner Anti-Imperialist Collective, a graduate student at Dartmouth College, and a farmer in Vermont.