GOLD COAST, – A VISITING Middle East expert familiar with groups fighting Islamic State says people thinking of following killed Gold Coaster Reece Harding into combat should know it’s no game.
Israel-based researcher and journalist Dr Jonathan Spyer, on the Gold Coast at the weekend, said the Syrian conflict was brutal and the risks for anyone joining it were high.
Dr Spyer, a panellist at a Centre for Independent Studies retreat at Sanctuary Cove, told the Gold Coast Bulletin he had made seven trips in the past two years to Syria, spending time with Kurdish fighters and groups like the YPG.
Mr Harding, 23, was fighting with the YPG against Islamic State when he was killed by a landmine in late June.
“I know that scene quite well,” Dr Spyer said. “I do understand why young guys feel that need and if they do go to the YPG … they are not going to join some dreadful thing — they are going to fight against something dreadful with an organisation that is pretty decent,” Mr Spyer said.
“But they should be aware of the risks. They don’t have medics. It’s a lightly-armed rough-and-ready guerilla army, they don’t have body armour, they don’t have helmets, some don’t even have boots.”
Dr Spyer said more than 250,000 people had died in the conflict and YPG expected foreigners going to fight to stay for six months.
On his most recent visit earlier this year he met an American in his 30s volunteering for YPG who was later killed.
“It’s a real war; it’s not fun and games.”
But Dr Spyer, who has advised top Israeli politicians on foreign affairs, added it would terribly sad if people who fight with the Kurds end up in the “same bracket legally as people who go and volunteer for Islamic State”.
“Democracies should make a distinction between guys who are going to join a murderous terrorist organisation that enslaves women and kids — and guys going to join a group fighting to stop it.
“They should be allowed to settle back into normal life.”
Dr Spyer said while he considered Mr Harding “courageous” he has a son the same age and was happy he was not interested in joining the conflict.
His son, who is studying in Glasgow, plans to become a teacher.
Mr Harding’s family have spoken of their pride for what he did but urged other Australians not to follow him.