Last week Britain’s Channel 4 ran a story – see video above – on the liberation of Kobane from ISIS by Kurdish militia forces – specifically the YPG and YPJ (respectively, the male and female wings). The liberators were provided with Coalition air support and the defeat of ISIS, by the mainly Kurd militias, was hailed as a great victory. Yesterday the UK courts remanded in custody a British teenage girl of Kurdish heritage until September, when she will face charges relating to terrorism, merely because she had wanted to provide humanitarian support to the YPJ. As an example of the confused foreign policy of the UK Government and its equally confused policy in the treatment of UK citizens travelling to the Syria-Iraq conflict zone or to offer humanitarian aid, this one takes top prize.
For months it was left to the Kurdish militias to take back the besieged city of Kobane, not far from the Turkish border. It seemed an impossibility, with ISIS firmly in control. But the Kurds did not give in. Over time they received limited air support from the Coalition – i.e., in this case, the USA – but little else. When, back in January, Kobane was finally liberated – though most of the city had been destroyed by ISIS – the West lauded this as a great victory. Last week Britain’s Channel 4 ran a story as part of its Unreported World series on the liberation of Kobane and focused in particular on the brave work of women Kurdish fighters – the YPJ. It was an excellent piece of frontline reporting and ought to be nominated for a Bafta.
Also in January, an 18 year old British girl, Shilan Ozcelik, on arriving at Stansted Airport from Brussels was arrested and subsequently charged with offences under the 2006 Terrorism Act. Yesterday she attended a hearing at the Old Bailey, where she was refused bail. A BBC story stated that the UK Government accused Ms. Ozcelik of supporting the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, which is a proscribed organisation even though it has undergone a huge transformation in recent years and is outlawed merely because of pressure from Turkey. However, a more recent report in the Guardian stated that Ms. Ozcelik is accused of offering support to the YPJ (which, like the YPG, is not a banned organisation). Ms. Ozcelik’s supporters also maintain she intended to provide humanitarian aid to the YPJ – in the Rojava region of Kurdistan.
Ms. Ozcelik is the first person in the UK to be arrested and charged with such an offence for allegedly attempting to join the campaign against ISIS.
Since Ms. Ozcelik’s arrest in January there have been several high profile cases regarding Britons travelling to Syria via Turkey…
In February, schoolgirls Shamina Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase fled their homes in the UK and are now presumed to be in Syria – allegedly to provide support to ISIS – and were aided by a Syrian who, under interrogation, claimed he liaised with Canadian Intelligence (and a ‘Brit’ based at the Canadian Embassy in Amman). The three were preceded by another girl from the same school they attended in London and who had travelled to Syria last December. The parents of the three girls were understandably distraught about what had happened and the UK Government promised that should the three girls return to Britain they would not be prosecuted.
In the aftermath of this débâcle (both the British and Turkish authorities failed badly in helping to protect the three girls) and after much debate in the community, the UK Government agreed that the girls had been victims of grooming by ISIS and that what was at issue here was not terrorism but the safeguarding of young adults.
Three weeks ago three young Britons were arrested at Istanbul Airport on suspicion that they intended to travel to Syria. They were returned to the UK, where they were initially placed under arrest, then released back into the community. The safeguarding issue should, of course, be equally applied to young males and it appears that this will be the case with these four.
Just over a week ago, nine UK medics, all young and of Sudanese heritage, travelled to Syria via Khartoum, though it is still unclear to which part of Syria they were heading to and, of course, if their work remains purely medical then they are protected by the Geneva Conventions.
Yesterday nine Britons from Rochdale – three men, two women and four young children – were arrested by Turkish authorities as they reportedly attempted to cross the border into Syria into ISIS-controlled territory. They are now being deported back to the UK. No further details have been released.
Earlier last month a former British Royal Marine, Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, died fighting for Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria. Last year two British men – James Hughes and Jamie Read – were recruited by an American to go to Syria to help the Kurds fight ISIS. The two men prefer to call themselves freedom fighters and not mercenaries as they are not doing this for money. The British tabloid newspapers hailed the pair as heroes. The pair are still believed to be in Syria fighting ISIS.
Now back to Ms. Ozcelik…
It would seem her arrest in January was at a point in time when the UK Government’s policy on the safeguarding of children and young adults who attempted to join ISIS or anti-ISIS forces had not been firmed up, never mind informed. What is clearly absurd in the case of Ms. Ozcelik is that the UK Government is jailing a supporter of an anti-ISIS militia that the Coalition has been backing. So, on the one hand the UK Government (belatedly) professes it will not prosecute young adults who are groomed by ISIS, but on the other hand appears more than happy to jail a young adult who hopes to offer support to those who oppose ISIS. Nor has the UK Government at any stage attempted to clarify its policy in regard to those who offer humanitarian aid to the victims of terror in Syria or Iraq or Kurdistan or neighbouring areas, whether via recognised aid agencies or via other means (as with aid worker Alan Henning, who raised money for Rochdale Aid 4 Syria on behalf of Al-Fatiha Global, before being taken hostage by ISIS and brutally murdered).
This inconsistency in both policy and practice is matched by the complete lack of clarity by the UK Government in its foreign policy in Syria and Iraq, particularly since the advent of ISIS. And so it would be no surprise if the UK Government now follows the opportunistic USA, which has signaled that it is seeking rapprochement – appeasement – with the Assad regime, regardless of that regime’s track record in chlorine gassing and barrel-bombing its citizens
Meanwhile Ms. Ozcelik’s supporters are demanding she be released. No doubt her legal team will be flagging up the inconsistencies in her treatment at the earliest opportunity.