I first met Karim Franceschi in November 2016, in the hills of northeastern Syria, at a remote compound everyone called the Academy. It was a former oil facility that had been turned into a training camp for the volunteers from the U.S. and Europe who were coming to battle the Islamic State with the Kurds. A lot of the fighters were soldier-of-fortune types, veterans of the French Foreign Legion or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least half were militant leftists like Franceschi, an avowed communist who wore a Mao pin on the lapel of his camouflage uniform. He had been one of the first to arrive, in October 2014, and by the time we met, he had seen more combat than any other Westerner around.
At 28, he was tall and dark and bearded, with a kind of glowering geniality about him. He was vague about his background, but I gathered he was born in Casablanca to a Moroccan mother and an Italian father, and grew up in a housing project in provincial Italy. He mentioned working in construction, but also spoke knowledgeably of cryptocurrencies and computer programming. He was fluent in six languages and spoke English with an inimitable inflection of Mediterranean and Maghrebi accents. The volunteers spent long hours sitting around drinking tea and smoking cigarettes; listening to Franceschi’s disquisitions on late capitalism, spiced with mordant asides on the Syrian Civil War, it was easy to fall under the sway of his charisma.
“A capitalist society is a shit society,” he said, “just as Egyptian society with the pyramids and pharaohs was a shit society. What we’re fighting for in Rojava is a socialist alternative.”
Franceschi was one of a motley mix of anarchists, Marxists and eccentric humanitarians who had come to take part in an obscure armed struggle known as the Rojava Revolution, the Kurds’ improbable attempt to establish an egalitarian democracy in a Belgium-size region just south of Turkey, known as Rojava. Like a lot of the volunteers, he saw it as his generation’s version of the Spanish Civil War, another conflict that attracted radical leftists from all over the world. But while tens of thousands of foreigners fought in the anti-fascist International Brigades between 1936 and 1938, 500 at most had showed up to defend the Kurds against the Islamic State, their chief nemesis. “In this revolution, the Western volunteers are basically a joke,”Franceschi told me. “A historic moment is being lost.”
To some extent, the Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, was deliberately keeping Westerners sidelined, as 20 of them had already been killed in combat. But a more basic obstacle to the volunteers making a tangible contribution was the inability of most of them to speak Kurmanji. Franceschi was one of the few who had mastered its grammar, and just a few days before we met, he had gotten permission from the YPG to form a free-standing platoon of international leftists that would conduct business entirely in English, while he as commander would liaise with the Kurdish generals. He was calling it the Antifa International Tabur (Kurmanji for a platoon-size unit), which I will simplify to Antifa Platoon. Its sole purpose, Franceschi told me, was to fight in the upcoming battle to drive the Islamic State from its capital city, Raqqa, just south of Rojava.
The massive offensive, years in the making, was carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish coalition of militias led by the YPG and backed by the United States. The SDF breached the city limits last year on June 6th. Reporting on the western front, I remember broiling daytime temperatures and gunshots booming in the deserted streets. Everywhere you looked, the city was bombed, busted, wrecked to rubble. There were no civilians to be seen, only small teams of SDF inhabiting abandoned houses, or riding toward an amorphous front line in clattering battlewagons plated in homemade armor. Occasionally you saw American commandos tooling around in mud-splattered gun-trucks, but they left the fiercest fighting to the Kurds.
I managed to make contact with Franceschi only once, in the last week of June, when he sent me an email to say the platoon was on its way to the eastern front. I did everything I could to link up with them, but at the time it was impossible to get to the east side of Raqqa from where I was because the Islamic State still controlled a key neighborhood called Hisham Abdulmalik, a southern sector of the city that gave them crucial access to the Euphrates River, their last link to the outside world, and kept them from being completely surrounded.
The battle ended in October, and it was November by the time I got through to Franceschi’s phone. He was at a hospital in Rome, awaiting the first in a series of surgeries. The platoon, he told me, had disbanded after the battle and dispersed to eight different nations. Over the next six months, I tracked them down one by one. Some were recovering from wounds, some had been arrested, some had gone off the grid in places like Thailand, but I managed to interview all but one of the 12 core members.
The liberation of Raqqa effectively decapitated the Islamic State, leaving the ersatz caliphate with no major cities. I had never expected the Antifa Platoon to play anything but a bit part in what amounted to one of the biggest and most significant battles of the 21st century, but piecing together their story with the help of photos and satellite maps, I’ve come to the improbable conclusion that this pack of idealistic misfits played a key role, which has never before been reported.
Franceschi’s assessment is characteristically grandiose. “We did something really unbelievable,” he says. “We covered ourselves in glory.”
After receiving permission to form the platoon, Franceschi spent five months recruiting members and training them in tactics he found in military field manuals. In April 2017, they took part in their first combat operation: the battle to seize Tabqa Dam, a giant hydroelectric facility that supplies Raqqa with water and power.
He had convinced the YPG to issue his unit a pair of belt-fed machine guns, a couple of sniper rifles, a tablet with GPS and satellite maps for requesting American airstrikes, as well as three Toyota Hilux pickup trucks. With this equipment they advanced rapidly, outpacing the SDF’s supply lines, leaving them to drink from irrigation ditches and scavenge dusty jars of nameless foodstuffs from demolished houses. “We ended up with bad intestine infections,” Franceschi says, “but pumped with adrenaline.” They also found a night-vision scope in the rubble of an airstrike, a restricted military device worth $50,000 that, together with a thermal hunting scope Franceschi had brought from Italy, would give them an edge over most units in the YPG, whose fighters usually go into battle with little more than Kalashnikovs and tennis shoes.
At first, there was only one American in the platoon: Joshua Bailey, who had been disqualified from joining the U.S. Army on account of a lazy eye. He was nearly 30, living with his mother and working in a Baltimore convenience store, making $9.50 an hour behind the fried-chicken counter, when he happened to see The Brits Battling Isis, a documentary about a trio of Englishmen serving in the YPG. He opened his laptop, did a few searches, and found himself immersed in the Internet subculture of the Rojava Revolution: discussion threads on Reddit, photos and videos of combat on Facebook, live updates to battlefield maps on Twitter. In a YouTube video posted January 2016, a group of masked Europeans with antiquated Kalashnikovs stand under the yellow flag of the YPG, issuing an “international call to join the resistance.”
The YPG are loyal to an imprisoned guerrilla leader named Abdullah Öcalan, a former Marxist who now espouses a synthesis of anarchism, feminism and ecology. After Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad pulled his forces from Rojava in 2012, the YPG took over security and started reorganizing society in accordance with Öcalan’s progressive ideals, which basically amount to a form of direct democracy based on universal participation in neighborhood councils, with every office jointly held by a man and a woman. Though mostly ignored by the mainstream media, Rojava became a celebrated cause to the millennial hard left, the sort of black-clad protesters you might have found at Occupy Wall Street or setting limousines on fire at Trump’s inauguration. At the same time, the YPG became the U.S. military’s closest ally on the ground in Syria; no other faction showed as much willingness and ability to take on the Islamic State and win.
“It was a chance to participate in a revolution in my own lifetime,” says Bailey, who calls himself a “minarchist,” something between a libertarian and an anarchist. “I would have hated myself if I didn’t go.” It took him two years to save $1,200 for a one-way flight.
Rojava doesn’t have an international airport, and was blockaded by hostile entities on four sides. Volunteers like Bailey have to fly to Sulaymaniyah, a city in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the first stop on a clandestine route that I have used myself. After a short stay at a designated safe house, an operative drives you into the Qandil Mountains. From there it’s an all-night hike through dry and rocky hills to reach the Tigris. I remember stumbling in the darkness under the weight of my pack the last time I went, dogs barking, and having to lie flat while Iraqi peshmerga swept the hillside with a spotlight. You could feel the cool air of the river and hear frogs croaking before the water came into view, flat and silvery in the darkness. A man with a rifle crouching on the shore whistled to us and we climbed into an inflatable boat and paddled across, portaging over the slippery mud flats. On the Syria side, we were met by a YPG truck.
This is the only way in or out, and for volunteers it’s risky. In the past few years, young men from Spain, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Britain, Canada and the United States have all been jailed in Iraq for illegal crossings. But once inside Rojava, foreigners are welcome as a matter of principle. In his writings, Öcalan calls the nation-state “the cage of natural society.”
Not long after their first battle, Bailey and a few other guys went for a swim beneath the dam, where they met a lean and bearded Spaniard by the name of Alberto Ballesteros, a 27-year-old volunteer who wore a patch of the Spanish Republic on his uniform, “my homage,” he says, to the International Brigades. His mother had been a member of the Revolutionary Communist League in 1970s Spain, and his father was a refugee from Argentina’s Dirty War. Ballesteros had worked as a teacher, social worker and filmmaker, and came to Rojava with the idea of doing civilian work, but decided to do six months’ duty in the YPG. “I didn’t think it was fair that others had to give their lives to create this safe space for the revolution,” he says. He was glad to join the Antifa Platoon, though he had heard mixed things about Franceschi, who had a reputation as a taskmaster and an egomaniac.
As a self-described feminist and Trotskyist, Ballesteros was the sort of revolutionary Franceschi had hoped to recruit, but the platoon’s political exclusivity was already in the process of breaking down. Franceschi had just kicked out three Italian anarchists, friends of his, who didn’t want to submit to military discipline. “They acted like they were living in a squat house,” Franceschi says. “They were calling me authoritarian. They wanted democracy. I told them to go and do civilian work.”
At the same time, he brought aboard a number of veterans who weren’t interested in politics but made excellent fighters, including Kevin Benton, a 25-year-old Scotsman with a cheerfully maniacal grin and a completely shaved head who had done tours with the British infantry in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. Benton taught the platoon proper tactics, like moving down a street with 360-degree security, approaching a compound from a distance and clearing a room by “cutting the cake” around a corner, sweeping every angle. They also picked up Mark Ramsay, a 39-year-old ex-Legionnaire from London.
“We ended up with a mixed platoon,” Franceschi says. “Ideological and ex-soldiers. We were sharing our perspective on revolution with the military guys, and they were giving us training and advice. It was beautiful to watch.”
Despite having acquitted themselves well in Tabqa, the platoon wasn’t picked to take part in the initial invasion of Raqqa. They were waiting at a desert compound outside nearby Sheddadi when, on July 7th, they got some bad news. Three of their friends from the Academy had been killed: Luke Rutter, a 22-year-old Briton, and two Americans, Nicholas Warden, 29, and Robert Grodt, 28. The three men had been killed in the SDF’s latest failed attempt to enter Hisham Abdulmalik, the southern sector of Raqqa that kept the eastern and western fronts divided.
The platoon’s attitude was, “Now we really need to go to Raqqa,” Bailey says. “We need to make these assholes pay.”
Franceschi had been granted the right to sit in on the council of generals, and now he went to them with an audacious plan. His platoon, he told them, could take Hisham Abdulmalik, cut off the Islamic State from the Euphrates, and unite the two fronts.
Except that there are pines instead of palm trees, Raqqa looks a lot like other cities along the Euphrates River Valley in Syria and Iraq. It’s a homely agglomeration of concrete buildings patched with mud-brick and sheet metal, the rooftops cluttered with billboards, antennae and satellite dishes, the streets draped in a crazy network of telephone and electric wire. The American bombing campaign left every third building stomped to rubble, with only a flicker of electricity left in the grid. The Islamic State prepared to defend these gritty ruins with a ghost army of snipers, suicide car bombs and teams of kamikaze jihadists laid up in a labyrinth of tunnels dug with slave labor. More than anything else, they relied on mines, which they concealed in practically every doorway, stairwell, bedroom and closet. And nowhere was the city more thoroughly booby-trapped than in Hisham Abdulmalik. “We were joking that even the air could be mined,” Franceschi says.
Instead of a head-on assault, as the SDF had already repeatedly tried, Franceschi’s plan was to sneak in at night by walking up a densely vegetated channel in the floodplain of the Euphrates along the southern edge of the neighborhood, which he figured couldn’t be mined, he tells me, because most mines would have been short-circuited by the periodic flow of water.
Actually, most mines are triggered by pressure plates and are unaffected by water, but Franceschi’s self-confidence won over the Kurdish generals. The platoon set out just two nights later, on July 9th, to take advantage of a full moon. They were 12 men in two squads: overwatch and assault. Aside from Benton, the Scottish veteran, the best-trained men on the assault squad were two Finns whose Kurdish war monikers were Ariel and Bagok (they didn’t consent to publication of their real names because of Finnish laws against taking part in foreign conflicts). Both are left-leaning socialists who had been officers in the Finnish army and wanted to put their training to use in actual combat; that they believed in the Kurdish cause was secondary. Bagok has a dark beard and a buzzed head, and at the relatively senior age of 29, he was the assault squad’s leader. Ariel, 23, is cool and calm, with blonde hair and a brown mustache; he was the point man, entrusted with the night-vision scope. Very slowly and in complete silence, they picked their steps through the muddy channel. “We were creeping through this sylvatic, jungle-like environment,” says Ballesteros, who carried the rocket-grenade launcher. “It seemed like Vietnam.”
Franceschi’s gamble worked; they didn’t encounter any mines. When they climbed out of the channel, they were inside ISIS territory. It was time to start clearing houses, a deadly, laborious business they’d be at for the next two months straight. The method was as follows: Coming to a house, they would first blow open the front door with a rocket-grenade, or bash it down with a sledgehammer. Before entering, they’d deliberately trigger whatever mines or booby-traps might be inside by tossing in a homemade bomb, a coconut-sized device that was little more than gunpowder wrapped in packing tape. Clearing a single building could take hours, or all night, as every footstep had to be deliberate. If anyone opened a door or picked up an object before it had been checked, “we would beat the shit out of him and kick him out of the platoon immediately,” Franceschi says. “Our team was very disciplined, or we would not have survived.”
Though there were only a dozen men under Franceschi’s direct command, he was able to draw on a much larger rear guard of Arab SDF fighters whose job was to hold and occupy buildings after they’d been cleared. Raqqa is an Arab city, and in the run-up to the battle, the SDF’s mostly Kurdish leadership had recruited or conscripted 10,000 or more Arab men of military age. I met many of these Arabs holding down positions on the western front. They had minimal training, often went barefoot and sometimes had to share rifles. Their numbers were crucial to the SDF’s ultimate victory, and an outsize portion of them lost their lives.
The first house the platoon tried to clear that night was packed floor-to-ceiling with drums of benzene wired to explode. They marked it for an airstrike and moved on to house number two, which they entered by bashing a hole in the courtyard wall. After clearing it, they radioed the Arabs to come forward. What happened next is one of the few points on which the platoon members’ stories conflict. Some, including Franceschi, say the Arabs were specifically instructed not to open any doors or cabinets. Bagok says that isn’t true. “It was a mistake on our part not to clear one of the bedrooms,” he says. The Arab who went looking for a blanket was a square-jawed young man named Merwan Hisên. In his last moment of life, he would have been reaching for the door of a wardrobe.
A few days after the platoon entered Raqqa, three newcomers arrived on the front line to join them. One was Frederick Laurents, a 23-year-old German farmer with a red beard who had joined the YPG for pure adventure. He had been in Rojava for nearly a year and had already survived both a Turkish airstrike and being shot in the helmet. The other two were Americans fresh out of the Academy: Mitchell Clark, 23, from Knoxville, and Michael Hogan, 21, from Phoenix. A fourth American, Josh Wilmeth, 22, from Culver City, California, had also recently joined the platoon. Clark had served four years as an infantryman in the U.S. Army but felt cheated out of ever being deployed. Hogan and Wilmeth had both been rejected by the Marine Corps. Hogan had been working at Ruby Tuesday’s and Wilmeth at Home Depot when they learned the YPG was accepting foreign recruits.
Clark was impressed by the platoon’s self-taught professionalism. “They were a high-functioning military unit,” he says. They had developed a routine: During the day they rested at their patrol base, a recently cleared house, and when the sun went down they went out and worked all night, clearing one building at a time. “We moved quietly,” says Wilmeth. “Covering team and assault team, pushing and clearing, four guys keeping a 360-degree watch at all times.”
It was two weeks before they got into a real firefight. They were inside a house when they heard a spasm of gunfire, followed by a group of Arab SDF hollering and pounding on the door. “These guys busted in and there’s blood everywhere,” says Wilmeth. Just a few blocks away, an ISIS machine-gunner had gotten the drop on them, wounding three. “We’re going to go out and kill these motherfuckers,” Franceschi said.
Benton was standing in the doorway scanning the street with the thermal scope when he spotted a pale life form moving across the grayscale viewfinder. It was a cat. He went on scanning, and then fired at a human shape withdrawing behind a concrete wall. That touched off a massive ambush. “They were all over us,” says Wilmeth. “Behind a truck, from a balcony, on the second floor of two buildings on either side, coming at us from three angles of fire.” The ruined streetscape, which had been pitch-black, was now madly illuminated in the staccato light of muzzle flashes and tracer rounds, and then by a flare, fired by the SDF command center, where American advisers monitored the front-line fighting on a live drone feed. “It was surreal,” Ballesteros says. “I will never forget it.”
Once back at the patrol base, they cracked open cans of Pepsi to celebrate. It was their first time under sustained fire, and they had successfully executed an orderly withdrawal. Benton had been grazed in the left triceps and shot in the left quad, but he dug the fragments out of his leg with pliers and rinsed the wounds with antiseptic.
The next day, they received word from the command center that they had killed five ISIS fighters in the shootout. A sixth had tried to flee but the Americans hit him with a drone strike.
That a private citizen can just go to a foreign country and kill people doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks. Uniformed military personnel are legally permitted to kill designated enemy fighters, but they’re subject to the laws of war and military regulations and may be prosecuted for murder if they intentionally violate the rules of engagement. The Antifa Platoon operated in a legal no man’s land with no oversight apart from the SDF’s loosely organized command. Three of them tell me about specific instances in which they killed one or more ISIS fighters, but only off the record. The rest say they don’t know if they killed anyone or not, which is probably true; many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan say the same thing, owing to the exigencies of urban combat. Either way, they all say they feel no remorse. “Not even a little bit,” says Franceschi.
Some countries prohibit their citizens from serving in another nation’s military or taking up arms in foreign wars, and YPG volunteers have been criminally charged after returning to Australia, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom. United States law doesn’t criminalize foreign fighting per se, but we do have vaguely worded anti-terrorism statutes that Shayana Kadidal, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells me could “almost certainly” be applied to American volunteers like Bailey, Hogan, Clark and Wilmeth because of the YPG’s close affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the Turkish militant group that Öcalan founded in 1978. Fairly or not, the United States classifies the PKK as a terrorist organization, and so does the European Union, but none of the scores of Americans who have returned from fighting in the YPG have been charged, which may have something to do with the fact that the U.S. government has thousands of military personnel in Syria working hand-in-glove with the YPG, many of whom, as they surely know, are PKK fighters who have merely changed uniforms.
As a matter of law, the American military contingent in Syria has no more right to be there than the Antifa Platoon did. There is no United Nations mandate, and Congress has not exercised its Article I prerogative to authorize military force in Syria, as it did before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the scale of the U.S. mission, which has gone on for three years now, the Pentagon will disclose almost nothing about it, except in anodyne press releases that tend to be vague, lawyerly and misleading. In the summer of 2017, I often saw armed Americans in uniforms without insignia riding around in trucks without license plates. At the time, military officials told me there were exactly 503 soldiers on the ground, but the Pentagon later disclosed to Congress that the true number was approximately 2,000.
The encounters between these elite operators and the ragtag Antifa Platoon were sometimes awkward. Hogan remembers running into a group of them outside of Tabqa. “They looked like a motorcycle gang,” he says. “They were not your average SEALs or Rangers or Green Berets. In how they looked, how they talked, how they acted, these guys didn’t give a fuck. They had long hair and beards, tattoos on their hands, totally out of regulations. All the best equipment. They pretty much pretended we didn’t exist.”
On other occasions, the Americans gave them bagged rations called Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, possibly out of pity. By late July, the platoon was half-starved, and “the MREs were like a five-star restaurant,”Franceschi says. I served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, and no matter how bad conditions were, you were never far from a dining facility serving up three hot meals a day, courtesy of egregiously overpaid contractors; the first time I ever had lobster was at an airbase in Baghdad. Conditions in the SDF were very different. On the front line, the platoon usually got one meal a day, and the food was drawn from the poor, beleaguered people of Rojava. The staple is flat pita bread, which quickly turns stiff and tasteless. Often you have tomatoes, onions, potatoes and eggplants, beyond which you might get a little processed cheese, canned mystery meat, or “a bit of chicken that looks more like a sparrow,” says Benton, who lost 44 pounds. Clark, a former martial arts fighter with chiseled facial features, dropped from 190 pounds to 155. “If there was nothing else at all, there was an eggplant,” he says. “We would cook up the one eggplant and share it.”
Then there was the sleep deprivation. During the day, they would pull back to their patrol base to rest, but without air-conditioning it was difficult to fall asleep in temperatures that often approached 120 degrees. “It’s like trying to sleep in a sauna,” Clark says. One photo taken around this time shows them sitting on the floor of a tagged-up house eating fried potatoes with their grubby hands, their faces smudged with gun smoke, uniforms powdered with dust and salt-crusted from dried sweat. “In two months, I took one shower,” says Ballesteros.
The worst torment of all were the sandflies, tiny blood-sucking midges that can slip through the finest netting, and the swarms of mosquitos that rose from the polluted Euphrates, so that even if they managed to drift off to sleep in the heat and sunlight, it wasn’t long before they woke up clawing at bleeding bug bites. “We were like zombies walking around,” Ballesteros says.
One night toward the end of July, the assault squad was creeping up on a house when they spotted a blinking red light. “We were thinking it couldn’t be a mine, because what kind of moron would put a blinking red light on a mine?” says Bagok. They backtracked and took cover in a crater in the street, tossed a couple of gunpowder bombs at the thing and shot at it, all to no effect, so they decided to see if they could slip past. Ariel was on the radio with Franceschi, describing what he could see with the night-vision scope: “We’re getting close,” he said. “It’s big, sort of rounded. There’s something underneath, a little wagon, a toy car with wheels. Oh, shit. It’s making this weird clicking noise.”
“Get the fuck out of there!” Franceschi yelled into his handset. The squad was piling headlong into the crater when the device went off. “An orange glow just erupted,” says Ramsay. “Everything shook.”
“I felt this wave,” says Ballesteros. “The light was incredible.” The overwatch squad was on a nearby rooftop. “Smoke literally enveloped the neighborhood,” Franceschi says. “We felt gravel falling on our heads, debris. We thought we’d lost the entire team.”
They survived thanks to the depth of the crater. Ariel, Benton, Ramsay and Wilmeth took shrapnel, but they were able to pull the shards out with Benton’s pliers. Ballesteros was worse off. He had wrenched his knee, an injury that would hobble him for the rest of the battle.
The first of August was another bad day for the platoon.
Normally, when they all got together before an operation to study the satellite map, Benton would act as a quiet check on Franceschi’s certitude. “I wouldn’t try to outshine him,” Benton says, “but I’d point out safer routes. Nine times out of 10 he would listen.” This time, Franceschi didn’t.
The mission was simply to cross an intersection and seize a tall building on the other side, but the SDF command wanted it done in the daytime, something the platoon had never done before. Benton was against it. But the Kurdish generals wanted everything to be rolling constantly, and according to Benton, Franceschi wanted to impress them with the platoon’s ability to operate at any time. “He risked everyone’s life,” Benton says.
It was 104 degrees that day. Approaching the intersection, the platoon didn’t know the Islamic State controlled it from three angles. By this time they were almost to the Old City, and the urban terrain had gotten denser, the enemy more numerous. ISIS snipers and machine-gunners were hidden deep within piles of broken concrete, so that not even their muzzle-flashes could be seen from the street.
Just shy of the intersection, a burst of gunfire sent the assault squad scrambling for cover in a wrecked building. It was a tight spot, barely room for the five of them to stand. In a professional army, an infantry squad would pop smoke to cross an intersection under fire, but they had only the gunpowder bombs to kick up a thin screen of dust, a poor substitute. Wilmeth stepped out to toss one, but about 40 yards back, on the rooftop where Franceschi was posted with the overwatch squad, one of the Arabs stood up and started waving to get his attention. Wilmeth couldn’t understand his meaning. Just then, a rocket-grenade struck the parapet where the Arab was standing. “The wall just exploded,” Wilmeth says. “An arm went flying through the air.”
Franceschi ordered the assault squad to fall back. Clark ran first, followed by Laurents, who was struck down in the street by a bullet. Clark ran back and dragged him the rest of the way. “I could have kissed Clark for doing that,” Bagok says.
The rest of the team moved back safely, but the incoming fire trapped them in the house. Mortars pounded the walls. There was blood everywhere, shouting, confusion. The overwatch squad had carried the badly injured Arab down from the roof. “He didn’t have a face anymore,” Bagok says. “He didn’t have a left arm. His skull was cracked and his brain was hanging out, but somehow he was still alive. You could hear this really painful breathing.”
His name was Mehmûd Misede. Benton, a trained medic, figured his condition was hopeless. He says the best thing they could have done for him would have been to euthanize him with an overdose, because it ended up taking him nearly three hours to die, but medicines were in too short supply, he says. I question how they could have withheld anesthetic from a man in that degree of agony. “All we had was four vials of Tramadol and some Oxycontin in pill form,” Benton says. But they gave Laurents, who had been shot in the left butt cheek and couldn’t stop screaming, a hundred milligrams of Tramadol.
Incoming fire continued to drub the house. Over the next two hours, Franceschi called down a total of six airstrikes at “danger close” range – that is, right next to their own position, a desperate measure. The awesome power of the munitions was shocking. The immense plumes of smoke and debris turned day into night, but when the dust settled and Benton stuck his head out the door, a smattering of bullets smacked the wall, forcing him back inside. The airstrikes had done nothing.
With the enemy in full control of the street, Franceschi decided they would literally tunnel through the row of houses that comprised the block. They used a sledgehammer and the gunpowder bombs to bash and blast their way through one concrete wall after another, tunneling the distance of a football field in the appalling heat, carrying Laurents in a blood-soaked blanket-sling. “It was fucking excruciating,” Bagok says. At one point Franceschi lost his temper at the Arabs and swore he would execute them on the spot if they didn’t do more to help out. It was an hour and a half before they made it to the patrol base, where an ambulance took Laurents away. It was their first failed mission. “I never told Franceschi, ‘I told you so,'” Benton says. “I think he knew he made a mistake.”
After five weeks inside Raqqa, the unit was beginning to wear thin. Laurents was out of the fight for good, costing the platoon one of its most capable fighters. With his knee sprained, Ballesteros couldn’t carry the heavy grenade launcher without a bit of Tramadol to numb the pain. Benton was limping too; he hadn’t been able to extract all the bullet fragments from his leg, and it had begun to swell up. The mental strain was showing as well, especially on the youngest members. “Wilmeth almost died, like, three times,” Bagok says of the 22-year-old Californian. “He was a young guy, full of life, but I could see him not talking anymore, walking around like an old man.”
But by mid-August, the Antifa Platoon had succeeded in clearing all of Hisham Abdulmalik, connecting the eastern and western fronts. At the time, Clark says, their attitude was, “OK, we got this done, now let’s keep pushing forward.” Only later would they have the chance to reflect on what they had accomplished. “There was no meaningful moment,” Franceschi says, no handshakes or ceremonies or flags. “It was just a military fact.” The last of ISIS was now surrounded, with no way out of Raqqa. “I thought our role would be political, symbolic,” Ballesteros says. “But we secured the whole south.”
The YPG’s two English-speaking press officers both died in Raqqa, and the U.S. military task force overseeing the anti-ISIS offensive, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, would not comment on the Antifa Platoon’s specific tactical role. A spokesman, Col. Thomas Veale, tells me that the task force “has been made aware of several Americans fighting with the SDF, but has no official relationship with these individuals.” However, a French filmmaker named Pedro Brito Da Fonseca was with the Antifa Platoon for three weeks in July and all of October, and he confirmed the broad outlines of their story, including the fact that they were the ones to link the eastern and western fronts, with crucial assistance from the Arab SDF.
With the platoon’s main objective accomplished, Benton had had enough. He was ready to go home to Scotland and get his leg taken care of. Ramsey decided to go back to the U.K. with him, saying he couldn’t trust Franceschi’s judgment without Benton there to check him. But Franceschi, who can quickly switch from being brusque and aloof to consummately diplomatic, convinced them to stay on for one last mission.
It was the end of August, and the Islamic State had lost all but one western part of the Old City, and an industrial suburb north of there. The SDF was pressing hard to stamp them out completely, and Franceschi wanted the platoon to be a part of it. “Franceschi was really focused on achieving this,” Ballesteros said. “We all felt the pressure.”
Their task on August 29th was nothing out of the ordinary: a street, a row of houses, a school and an apartment block to clear. Before moving out that night, Franceschi went to the top of a four-story building to scout ahead. He was looking through the thermal scope when the roof beneath his feet exploded. He thought he’d been hit by an airstrike but it was a rocket-grenade. He didn’t know he was falling till he hit his head on concrete. His body slammed against one hard surface after another, and then he lay still, sure that the thoughts flickering through his mind in the darkness were the last before the final fade to death. “I was so frustrated,” he says, “because I had done everything right.”
The others were standing in the street below. “I seen the RPG hit the building,” Benton says. “I thought for sure he was dead.” They ran inside and searched all four floors, but there was no sign of Franceschi. “It didn’t seem possible,” Ballesteros says. “The way Franceschi was, it was like he was invincible.”
On the roof there was an opening for a ventilation shaft, and four stories down they saw a light. Franceschi had managed to slip his flashlight out of his pocket and switch it on. When they pulled him out of the rubble, “he was really disoriented,” Benton says. “He was speaking absolute shite. Going from English to Italian to Kurdish to Arabic, blood running down his face.” His head was battered and concussed, shrapnel stuck in his skull, his ribs broken, one shoulder dislocated, his spine wrenched and one knee twisted. Benton put his arm around Franceschi’s waist and got him out of the building and into a vehicle. “I stayed with Franceschi from then on out,” Benton says. “It was the end of the mission.”
They took him to an aid station run by French commandos. The medics patched him up as best they could but he needed surgery on his back, shoulder and knee. They sent him to a secret U.S. airbase just outside of Dêrik, but the Americans refused to take him, saying he was in the country illegally. The only way out of Syria was on foot, across the heavily policed border with Iraq. Franceschi, Benton, Wilmeth and Ramsey decided to attempt it together.
They must have cut a sorry sight wading the river by moonlight, limping across the desert, trekking nine hours through the mountains. “I left all my equipment behind,” says Franceschi. “I had not even a spare shirt. Just my passport in my pants.” Finally they made it to the safe house in Sulaymaniyah. At the airport, Iraqi customs asked Franceschi what he’d been doing in the country for so long, and what had happened to him. He told them he’d been working for Korek, the Iraqi telecom, and that he’d slipped and fallen. Whether or not they believed him, they stamped his passport and let him board a flight to Rome.
Without Franceschi, the platoon’s “cowboy days” were over, Bagok says. A new commander took charge, a Frenchman code-named Hogir, but from then on the Antifa Platoon was mostly kept to the sidelines. “Franceschi’s greatest strength is the same quality people dislike him for,” says Bagok. “His arrogant self-confidence played out in our favor in dealing with the Kurdish commanders. The way he went straight to the point while still respecting the rules of hospitality, which are very important in that culture.”
A new class of volunteers had just graduated from the Academy, and Hogir recruited all the hardcore leftists, holding closed-door meetings with them and alienating the apolitical guys. The platoon went out on a few more defensive patrols, but never really functioned as a unit again. It made little difference to the outcome of the battle. On October 17th, the SDF captured Paradise Square, the roundabout where the Islamic State had crucified people. On October 20th, Raqqa was officially declared liberated.
One by one the members of the Antifa Platoon made their respective journeys home to Finland, Scotland, England, Germany, Italy, Maryland, Nevada, California and Tennessee. There were no parades to greet them, no medals. Those who had been wounded would get no free medical treatment, no pensions. Awaiting a flight to Baltimore, Bailey met a girl he liked working the cash register at a restaurant in the Boston airport. He tried to tell her about his adventures, but she had never heard of the Kurds, nor the war in Syria.
At Heathrow, officers did a random search on Benton and went through the photos on his phone. “They looked at me like, ‘What the fuck?'” he says. Counterterrorism police swiftly took him into custody. He spent the winter under house arrest, and is still under investigation. Ariel and Bagok are lying low and so far have avoided the Finnish authorities’ notice. Bagok, who cited the refugee crisis in Finland as one reason for taking up arms, says he felt like a refugee himself after he visited a mall in Stockholm. “This land of sheer plenty, this easy life,” he says. “People have no idea how well off they are.” Laurents recently had an operation to remove the bullet from his rear end. “It’s a pain in the ass,” he says in his wry Teutonic monotone.
Back home in Tennessee, Clark says he’s having trouble keeping to a normal sleep schedule. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” he says. Readjusting to life in California hasn’t been easy for Wilmeth either. “I have dreams,” he says, “but it’s not like in the movies, where you wake up sweating.” Hogan is applying for jobs as a police officer, and during an interview with the LAPD he told them all about fighting in Syria. “That would be something HR would have to look at,” they told him.
Franceschi’s surgeries went well, as did his physical rehabilitation. “I shed my blood for the revolution,” he says. “I saw comrades sacrificing their lives for it. Now they have their democracy, and whether it succeeds or fails will be up to them.” Some of the machismo is gone from his voice, but he says his beliefs haven’t budged. “I’m a Marxist and I would never change that,” he says. “I’ll always be for the little guy.” I laugh when he says he’s buying a Harley, because that’s a stereotypical thing for American veterans to do. “You shouldn’t have told me that,” he says darkly.
Though the Kurds’ five-year war with the Islamic State is effectively over, they still have to contend with Turkey, Syria’s neighbor to the north, the archenemy of Kurdish independence, whose repressive government is totally opposed to the Rojava Revolution and everything it represents. Just two months after the fall of Raqqa, the Turkish military upended the battlefield map by invading the westernmost canton of Rojava, a Kurdish enclave of Idlib province known as Afrin, which had been one of the most peaceful parts of Syria.
The Turkish move, heavy on tanks and airstrikes, had no apparent purpose other than to punish the Kurds and impose Islamist laws on them. The U.S. military had troops on the ground and could have easily denied Turkey access to Syrian airspace, but the Trump administration did nothing to defend the Kurds, even though they had just defeated America’s biggest terrorist bogeyman. It seems that the Turks were betting on that outcome; Trump says he’s “close friends” with Turkey’s president, the ranting, flag-waving, Koran-thumping strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and several Trump administration figures, including the president himself, have financial interests in Istanbul.
Left to fend for itself, the YPG stopped its mopping-up operations against the Islamic State and redeployed a large contingent of fighters to defend Afrin. A number of foreign volunteers jumped on convoys headed northwest. Ballesteros was one of them. He had stayed on in Rojava to do volunteer work, teaching filmmaking to Kurdish kids, but once again he put his civilian duties aside and picked up a Kalashnikov.
On arriving in Afrin city, he saw firsthand how vastly Turkey’s modern, professional military outclasses the scrappy YPG. “The defenses in the city were almost nonexistent,” Ballesteros says. “They were not ready for that kind of fight.” He saw about 10 volunteers there, mostly Europeans, “hiding under trees for days, their [units] getting decimated by helicopters.” After just a week, Ballesteros fled the city under heavy fire from snipers in the surrounding hills.
By the end of March, Afrin had fallen to Turkish forces. International casualties included Samuel Prada Leon, a 25-year-old Spaniard; Hauker Hilmarsson, a 32-year-old Icelander famous in his country for his environmental activism; Olivier Le Clainche, a 40-year-old from the Breton region of France; and Anna Campbell, a 26-year-old British woman whose father told reporters she went to Rojava after getting involved with “the alternative political scene” in England.
Afrin’s displaced leadership vowed to carry on the fight from underground. “We will continue to strike the enemy with guerrilla tactics and will make Afrin a graveyard for Turkish fascism,” read a post on the website YPG International.
But when Clark and Wilmeth tried to go back, their contact told them the YPG no longer had the ability to bring foreigners over the Iraqi border. Shut out of Syria, the two of them began making plans to go to Ukraine, a front line against Kremlin aggression since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Clark ended up staying behind, but Wilmeth went in March. In April, he was joined by Benton, who seems to have developed a rather winking relationship with the Scotland Yard agents keeping tabs on him. They joined a militia known as the Georgian Foreign Legion, on the side of the Ukrainian nationalists against the Russian-backed separatists. Hundreds of foreign fighters from a dozen or more countries have been reported on both sides of the war in Donbass.