As the war in Syria is showing signs that it could be winding down, more "foreign fighters" from Europe and the West are returning to their home countries, most especially jihadists who are in some instances (though notably not all) being charged and tried upon their return for violating anti-terror laws.
But the more interesting "hard" cases are currently playing out in UK courtrooms as more and more "volunteers" for the Syrian Kurdish YPG (or Kurdish "People's Protection Units") are also returning home.
And though in the instance of the secular Kurdish armed movement which currently holds up to 20% of Syrian territory in the north and east of the country American, British and French troops are actually directly supporting the YPG (which is the core component of the US-backed SDF), still — British men and women previously embedded with the group face arrest and trial upon their return on terrorism related charges, as demonstrated this week in the case of a British ex-soldier.
James Matthews, from east London, was charged with receiving training in Iraq and Syria on or before February 2016 “for purposes connected to the commission of preparation of terrorism.” He was set to face trial in November. The 43-year-old is the first person to face prosecution for terrorism in the UK for volunteering with a group already helped by the British and American governments.
As Al-Masdar News reports, James Matthews pleaded not guilty to terror-related charges at a London court and has had the charges against him dropped, The Guardian revealed of the proceedings on Tuesday.
Prosecutor Tom Little QC told the Old Bailey that the Crown Court was dropping the charges against Mr. Matthews as they believed there wasn’t a realistic chance of getting a conviction due to a lack of evidence.
The defendant, from East London, volunteered with Kurdish forces to battle ISIS terrorists in Syria, and was surprised to be accused of “attending terrorist training camps in the war-torn state” upon his return to the UK.
Speaking on his behalf, his lawyer insisted that they always said the allegations against Mr. Matthews were “extraordinary and totally unjustified,” but described his client as happy the charges had been dropped.
When the charges were first announced it sparked anger from different segments of the UK, with pro-Kurdish activists accusing the government of letting returning ISIS and other jihadist terrorists off the hook while seeking to prosecute YPG volunteers. NATO ally Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and likely lobbied the UK to pursue arrests of returning volunteers.
Terrorism charges brought in court in Feb against James Matthews, a former soldier who joined the Kurdish YPG militia to fight against ISIS, whilst 400 Isis fighters return to UK as free men. We need to do what #Trump did, change the judiciary. https://t.co/A2k0Ld6Wp4 pic.twitter.com/mqUaq6fqyG— Turning Right UK (@turningrightUK) March 17, 2018
James Matthews isn’t the only Briton to have smuggled himself to Syria to engage in the conflict, with dozens of others also doing so, and at least seven being killed there.
The Foreign Office continues to urge British nationals to avoid Syria and hasn’t provided specific details about the number of Brits embedded in Kurdish forces there, saying “As all UK consular services are suspended in Syria, it is extremely difficult to confirm the whereabouts and status of British nationals in the country.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been significantly propped up by foreign fighters over the course of the conflict, primarily fighting ISIS, but some also elected to battle Turkey-backed forces which attacked Afrin earlier this year.