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Why is Jim Matthews on trial for terrorism?

Breaking its alliance with the YPG is proving tricky for Britain. But presenting them as a terrorist faction is an easy way out, writes STEVE SWEENEY

THE case of Jim Matthews should concern us all. The former People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighter faces a court hearing on March 1st, where he could be jailed for up to 10 years for terrorism offences.

This is a watershed moment in British foreign policy. The trial is not just about Matthews. It is a marker for British government policy in a post-Isis Syria and paves the way for it to officially list the YPG as a terrorist organisation. 

Matthews is the first British YPG volunteer to be charged with terror offences in what is a major shift in the government’s treatment of those who fought with coalition forces against jihadists in Syria.  

Matthews has been back from Syria for almost two years, which begs the question: why is he being charged now?

The British state says Matthews “attended a place or places in Iraq or Syria where instruction or training was provided for purposes connected with the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism.” 

 The Terrorism Act was one of the most controversial measures introduced by Tony Blair’s government and led to his first Commons defeat after Labour backbenchers rebelled over plans that would have seen suspects held for 90 days without trial. 

British YPG volunteers have often raised fears of arrest on their return to Britain.

Kimmie Taylor, the first British woman to join the YPG, said she worries she cannot return to Britain having fought for a “political and social revolution” and the empowerment of women.

Others said they have also received calls from security services and many more are looking over their shoulders with concern.

It is worth recalling another fight against fascism which became a rallying call for British men and women who made the journey across Europe to Spain in the 1930s.

Between 1936 and 1939 around 2,500 people volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic as part of the International Brigades. They were largely recruited and organised politically by the Communist Party, which became synonymous with anti-fascism.

It was very much their war in Spain, just as the fight against the Isis fascists very much belongs to the revolutionary Kurds, embodied by the anti-capitalist, democratic society being built in Rojava. 

Both were, of course, anathema to Britain. Just as they opposed communist influence in Spain, they oppose the revolutionary struggle being waged in northern Syria. 

Those who volunteered in Spain were threatened with the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, which forbids “any commission or engagement in the military or naval service of any foreign state at war with a friendly state.”

However, the act, which remains on the statute book, was never used. The International Brigades finally left Spain in December 1938 as it became apparent the Republic was defeated.

As hundreds of international volunteers returned to Britain they were met by cheering crowds at London’s Victoria station. Labour leader and future prime minister Clement Attlee  was there to greet them as they received a hero’s welcome. 

In contrast, the British volunteers fighting fascism in Syria return alone. There is no welcome party, no flag waving and no cheering masses.

The Labour Party has barely acknowledged them, let alone spoken out in their defence.

Fearing arrest or worse, many feel unable to speak about their experiences. 

The cause of the Spanish Republic was even supported by a number of Tories, with another future British prime minister Ted Heath visiting the front as part of a student delegation just before the battle of Ebro.

It was there he met Jack Jones, who went on to become general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), now Unite. 

Surprisingly, they forged a lifelong friendship and respect for each other, despite their political differences. By today’s standards, both would face possible arrest and charges of terrorism. 

The dates in which the British state says Matthews attended a terrorist training camp — February 2016 — bear some scrutiny. 

During this period the British government was supporting the YPG in Syria by taking part in strategic bombing campaigns and offering tactical support. 

If fighting Isis in Syria alongside the coalition forces that the British government was supporting is enough to land Matthews in court, surely the British government should also be in the dock. 

Yet at no stage during Matthews’s time with the YPG were they deemed terrorists. Presumably, they were part of former PM David Cameron’s mystical 70,000 “moderates” in Syria.

While it was politically expedient to support the YPG as the fight against the jihadists was raging, their defeat now poses the crucial question of a post-Isis Syria. 

For Britain and the US, a democratic Syria means a compliant state necessitating the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But their presence in Middle Eastern countries, particularly those with large Muslim majorities, is deeply unpopular following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Removing Assad from power, however, is not as easy or straightforward as they would like.  

The imperialists want to see a divided Syria, which would increase their influence in the region and weaken the control of Assad. But they do not want to see northern Syria controlled by revolutionaries and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Therefore, they need a way out of the short-term tactical alliance with the YPG. Branding them terrorists would achieve that. 

A recent inquiry in the British Parliament — called Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK — looks to have given them the lifeline they needed. As MPs quizzed academics and received written testimony from the Turkish, Russian and US governments it became clear that they were trying to link the PYD and the YPG to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As one academic detailed the relationship between the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish parties, committee chair Tom Tugenhadt intervened to suggest that given what he had heard the YPG should surely also be classed as terrorists.

The YPG had effectively been handed to the British government on a plate. It was this evidence that led the committee to its conclusion. While it was contradictory and seemed to suggest that the PYD should be included in the Geneva talks over the future of Syria, it blasted the British government for an “incoherent view” on links to the PKK. 

The committee chair explained that “the evidence to our inquiry argued that this group was linked to the PKK, even though the nature and extent of these links is debatable” and warned the Foreign Office position lacked credibility, urging it to come to “a clear view.” In other words, list the YPG and PYD as terrorists. 

In a seemingly contradictory move, the US appears to be investing in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as part of its Border Security Force operation, including 30,000 troops in northern Syria. It was this that so enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading to the invasion of Afrin.

But we should be wary of the US motives in supporting the SDF. They too are committed to regime change in Syria and see its future as one without Assad. They are unlikely to support an autonomous state as part of a federal Syria under the control of revolutionaries.

The future of Rojava is at stake. The Kurds are acutely aware of the role of the United States and its motives in the region. While some Western leftists have been reluctant to support those fighting Isis in Syria and the Rojava project because of their tactical alliance with the US, they have no excuses not to support them in a straightforward fight against Nato’s second largest army: Turkey. 

Erdogan’s war on Afrin is illegal. It breaches international law and the Geneva Convention as a war of aggression against a non-aggressor. 

And the silence of world leaders who are lining up to say that Turkey has a right to defend its borders means they are complicit and have the blood of the people of Afrin on their hands. 

Turkey has long wanted war in Afrin and has frequently subjected it to bombing raids and other attacks including cutting off water supplies. There is a logic in this for Erdogan. He wants to drive a wedge between Afrin and the other cantons of Rojava. And he is being allowed to do so by the imperialist US and Russia, although for different reasons. 

The war on Afrin is a war of imperialism against the revolutionary Kurds who are fighting for democracy.

Jim Matthews is a spanner in the imperialist works. His case is about his liberty, a hero who has risked everything to fight for a better future for all of us. But it is also about the future of Rojava, the future of humanity. 

Jim Matthews is a hero, not a terrorist.


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