WASHINGTON — A former U.S. Marine and another American citizen are allegedly being detained by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed militia that is fighting the ground war against the Islamic State group.
Kevin Howard, a former U.S. Marine, and Taylor Hudson were allegedly detained by members of the Syriac Military Council, or MFS, according to friends and social media accounts.
The MFS are a small militia fighting under the larger umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The MFS are predominantly Syriac Christians, and are considered a minor faction of the SDF, which includes Arabs and Kurdish fighters.
A spokesman for the American-led mission in Iraq and Syria, U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, told Military Times that a friend of the detained former U.S. Marine reached out to him seeking help for Howard.
Dillon told Military Times that he had little information about the alleged detentions, and that the U.S. State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services is currently responsible for and working on the situation.
An official at the U.S. State Department confirmed to Military Times that they were aware of reports of U.S. citizens being detained but would provide little details, citing privacy concerns.
“We are aware of reports of U.S. citizens volunteering to fight in the conflict in Syria being detained,” the official said. “We strongly warn against traveling to Syria to join in the conflict.”
“U.S. citizens who undertake such activity face extreme personal risks, including kidnapping, injury, or death. The U.S. government does not support this activity,” the official added.
Howard’s friend, Jeanette Carlisle, confirmed to Military Times that she had reached out to Dillon.
“He told me the military will not help them because they have a specific mission and it is not helping Americans,” she said.
The American military mission, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, is tasked with destroying the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Howard had volunteered to fight with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as a combat medic back in September of 2016, according to Carlisle. The YPG is a dominant Kurdish faction of the SDF.
In April, Howard had attempted to come home, but was unable to get through the tight security along the border between Syria and Iraq’s Kurdish region. It requires someone to smuggle you through, YPG volunteers told Military Times.
Howard was detained in an Iraqi jail while attempting to cross the border, Carlisle said.
MFS fighters had offered to help and bail him out of the Iraqi jail as long as Howard agreed to fight with the militant faction for a while longer, at least until September, according to Carlisle’s account.
After receiving his passport back from MFS in September at gunpoint, according to Carlisle, Howard and another American volunteer, Taylor Hudson, fled the area, then contacted the U.S. State Department.
According to Carlisle’s account of the incident, the State Department told the two Americans to seek out a U.S. military post for help. After reaching a U.S. garrison in Syria, the group was turned away by U.S. forces, Carlisle said.
Dillon could not confirm whether the former Marine had reached out to U.S. forces, and was not aware of the incident.
The two Americans were eventually recaptured by MFS forces and are currently being detained, Carlisle told Military Times.
The MFS are requesting the two Americans sign a propaganda statement before they are released, Carlisle said.
Military Times cannot verify the authenticity of the letter. The letter was sent to Jeanette Carlisle and provided to Military Times.
A western YPG volunteer who spoke to Military Times confirmed some elements of Carlisle’s account of the two Americans. However, the YPG volunteer claims the two Americans “were arrested by YPG on the order of the commander of the Academy for foreigners (Canşer)” when they attempted to originally join the MFS, the YPG volunteer said.
Military Times cannot confirm the allegations made by the YPG. Syria is a complex battlefield with a myriad of actors and varying interests. Carlisle called the allegations false.
“They were held in jail for three days without any charge, and when they were finally released, they were taken back to the Assyrians [MFS] in handcuffs,” the YPG volunteer added. The YPG claimed the two Americans had killed civilians and were selling weapons to ISIS.
The western YPG volunteer told Military Times that the two “spent a month of their friends’ salary getting to the [U.S. Special Forces base] SF base, where they were immediately driven off-base and told: “You know the way you got in? You f---ing get out that way too.”
A second YPG fighter who fought with Howard confirmed to Military Times that the two Americans were denied assistance by U.S. forces at a U.S. base in Syria.
According to the western YPG volunteer, Howard and Hudson’s biggest dilemma is not that they are being detained; it’s that they have no way of crossing the border because it requires assistance from YPG Academy for foreigners.
“They have been released from MFS custody but still have no way of getting into [the part of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan regional government] or even buying food for themselves,” the YPG volunteer said.
The SDF, MFS and YPG have a handful of western volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria. Both Howard and Hudson were recently profiled earlier this summer by the LA Times about western volunteers in Syria.
Foreign fighters wishing to join the militant group start by contacting the YPG through a website called YPG International, a volunteer told Military Times.
The volunteers are then smuggled across the Iraqi/KRG border into Syria where they receive a month of training, the volunteer said. Foreign fighters usually don’t receive pay, he added.
The story provides an interesting window into the world of foreign volunteers who join the U.S.-backed anti-ISIS fighters.
Military Times cannot confirm all accounts of the story. Military Times has also reached out to the Syriac Military Council and has yet to receive a response.