BRAMPTON — Robert Somerville had no trouble getting to Syria last July to join the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Getting home was a different story.
When the Canadian army veteran stopped in Brisbane on Feb. 1, Australian border police questioned him about his time in Syria with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, held him at a detention centre and deported him.
Canada Border Services Agency officers were waiting when his plane landed at Vancouver airport on Feb. 5. They searched his phone and laptop. They quizzed him about posts on his Facebook page.
“They asked me about other Canadians there. I said I knew some but I didn’t give any names,” he said. They wanted to know if he was bringing back any weapons. Eventually, they returned his passport and let him go.
“It was an hour and a half. I was glad to get out of there,” Somerville, who served in Afghanistan with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry before heading to Syria, said over coffee in the farm belt north of Toronto.
The grilling the 28-year-old faced is becoming increasingly common for Western anti-ISIL fighters, who are coming under more scrutiny upon returning to their home countries, especially the U.K. and Australia.
The CBSA’s treatment of Somerville suggests authorities in this country are also paying closer attention to the roughly 20 Canadians who have joined with Kurdish forces — although none has been accused of any wrongdoing.
“I don’t know what is going on in the world for Robert and these volunteers to be treated like criminals,” said Somerville’s father Richard, a Canadian who lives in Australia. “As far as Robert going to Syria, this makes me so proud.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office referred questions about the issue to Global Affairs Canada, which said the government advised against all travel to Syria and Iraq but added that the YPG was not on Canada’s list of terrorist groups.
Somerville spoke about his experiences with border officials in his first interview since returning to Canada. He also discussed his time with the Kurdish forces, the death of fellow Canadian fighter John Robert Gallagher and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ISIL strategy.
Another Canadian infantry veteran fighting in Syria, Steve Krsnik, confirmed Somerville had joined the YPG. Four other YPG fighters — two Britons and two Americans — likewise said Somerville had been with them in Syria.
Somerville grew up in Sooke, B.C., on southern Vancouver Island. His father said he encouraged him to join the military, which he did in 2007, serving as a LAV-III gunner with the PPCLI 1st battalion’s Edmonton-based C Company.
Following a tour of Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, he left the military and worked in the food industry and in security. But after the conflict erupted in Syria, he longed to join the fight against President Bashar al-Assad. A series of terrorist attacks, such as the Taliban’s 2014 massacre at a Pakistani school, made him want to do his “small part.”
He made contact with the YPG through Facebook and a recruiter sent him a questionnaire asking if he was a neo-Nazi or had any offensive tattoos. Satisfied, they told him to fly to Iraq. “They said okay you can come,” he said.
Once he got to Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, a smuggler met him for the journey to Syria. His first stop was a training camp, where he met Gallagher, also a veteran of the PPCLI.
After two weeks, the YPG gave Somerville a rifle and sent him to Sarrin, a Syrian city the Kurds had just liberated from ISIL. From there, it was weeks of guard duty on the Euphrates River and eventually to Hasakah, where he drove a Hummer that made supply runs, ferrying fighters, food and ammunition to the front lines of the fighting.
Early in November, he ran into Gallagher again at a farmhouse. Gallagher was set up facing a building occupied by ISIL fighters. Somerville then drove to a nearby village to wait out the night. He woke in the morning to learn that Gallagher was dead.
He said he was told an ISIL extremist had put on a suicide vest and circled around to approach the Canadian from the side. Gallagher was apparently confused when the attacker struck up a conversation with him. The other YPG fighters, however, recognized what was going on and shot the ISIL member.
He never detonated his explosive vest but as he was going down he shot Gallagher in the upper leg, Somerville said. Gallagher was loaded into a Hummer for evacuation but later died of blood loss. “It was shocking,” Somerville said.
Somerville went from village to village in his Hummer after that, now manning the turret atop the vehicle as mortars rained down and gunfire pinged off the metal plates. Sometimes ISIL would send explosive-filled trucks after them.
The second time it happened, Somerville’s group was planting defensive mines when a truck came speeding towards them. They got into the Hummer and fled. Somerville shot at the suicide bomber but was unable to pierce the armour plating. “It was like a race,” he said.
I don’t know what is going on in the world for Robert and these volunteers to be treated like criminals
The truck was 10 metres behind them when it blew up. The YPG had remotely detonated a mine as the truck passed over it. The explosion lifted the Hummer off the ground. Somerville was thrown up and came down hard on his back. “I could barely walk the next day,” he said.
By late December he was getting fed up. The Hummers were breaking down. Fighters were leaving his unit. He got sick. He made his way to Irbil, Iraq. He was done. He may have been “a little drop of water in the pool” but he felt he had made a difference.
He stopped first in Thailand to unwind on the beach. His troubles began in Australia, where he had intended to visit his father. Border authorities scanned his passport and pulled him aside. “I think I was probably flagged.” He was honest with them. “I just told them straight up what I did and who I did it with,” he said.
They asked him about Australians with the YPG, including Ashley Dyball, who is under investigation after returning from Syria, he said. The Australians told Somerville he was to be deported because he had failed to put his Kurdish nom-de-guerre on his immigration form. “I didn’t want to fight it,” he said.
Britain has also begun detaining returning YPG fighters. Aiden Aslin, 22, was arrested after landing at Heathrow airport on Feb. 3 and is being investigated on suspicion of committing terrorist offences. Jim Matthews said he was arrested upon his return. “Police have seized my passport, computer, all my clothes, basically everything I own and turfed me out into the winter night,” he wrote on Facebook last week.
Such tactics have disappointed the international volunteers, many of whom are veterans and don’t feel they deserve to be treated like terrorists for fighting the same terrorists their own governments have been bombing and training others to kill.
The concerns stem partly from allegations of links between the Syrian YPG and the separatist PKK in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Erdogan argues the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK, a proscribed terrorist organization in Canada and elsewhere.
I think I was probably flagged. I just told them straight up what I did and who I did it with
Turkey blamed the YPG for a Feb. 17 bombing in Ankara that targeted military buses. But the YPG insists it was not involved and a group called the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, formerly a PKK affiliate, has claimed responsibility.
Somerville said that early in the conflict, PKK fighters had been in Syria but by the time he arrived they were gone. “They were fighting in Syria but they were eventually told to leave,” he said. The PKK preferred to be in Turkey anyway, he said.
After his time with the Kurdish forces, Somerville questioned Trudeau’s decision to call off CF-18 airstrikes and increase training of the Kurds and Iraqis. “I don’t understand why he thinks they need training,” he said. “The Kurds know how to fight. All they lack is air support, which we’re not going to give anymore.”
Somerville doesn’t plan on returning to Syria, at least not to fight. He said he might go back once the war is over. But for now he’s focused on trying to find a job after six months on the battlefield. “Overall, I think it was worthwhile,” he said.
By Stewart Bell
Source: National Post