‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

An interview with Macer Gifford, the British former currency trader who joined the Kurdish frontline with the Syriac Military Council. By Karlos Zurutuza.

Graduating from university in Britain during the financial crisis, Macer Gifford found himself, like so many others, restless and adrift.

He managed to get himself a job in finance, as a currency trader, but always had one eye focused elsewhere: on the news, on the world outside, on the ‘so-called Arab Spring’.

Now, at 30 years old, Gifford has spent the last three years in a radically different occupation: embedded in Syria with the Kurdish Popular Defence Forces (YPG), and now with the Syriac Military Council – one of the groups within the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military coalition which is leading the battle against so-called Islamic State in Syria.

Macer Gifford during the interview with New Internationalist
Macer Gifford during his interview with New Internationalist. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

On March 17, 2016, delegates from various northern regions of the Syrian state, including Rojava, proclaimed the ‘Federation of Northern Syria’. Whereas both the Government and Syrian opposition groups rejected the idea, Gifford talks of a ‘revolution in every sense of the word’.

‘The Middle East has been waiting for a revolution to come along, it’s almost like a renaissance for this part of the world,’ says the British volunteer, who labels himself an internationalist. Using a pseudonym to protect his identity, he spoke to us from the western front line in the on-going battle for Raqqa, so-called Islamic State’s main stronghold in Syria.

What brought you from Britain to Syria?

I went to university to study politics and international relations and I was determined to work for a charity or to continue my work for a political party.

I’ve always wanted to get out to travel to work for a charity, but because I finished my studies in 2008, during of one of the worst recessions ever, I got into finances.

Although I enjoyed it, I wasted most of my time looking at newspapers, following events around the world; I still wasn’t doing something that I thought was making a difference.

So when the chance to come here arrived I didn’t hesitate. There were fewer than 10 foreign volunteers embedded with the YPG when I arrived in December 2014, but I was invited by the people here when I let them know about my intentions. I knew there was a revolution taking place here and I told them that I was in it for the long run. I did a lot of research before I came.

My first trip was just over five months and then I went back home. I didn’t realize back then that the Kurds would keep advancing south. Soon it started to seem that that it was the Kurds on the ascendance, not Daesh (so-called Islamic State).

After that first trip I was very tired. I had fought for over five months, I had seen a lot of friends die and I was keen to get back to Britain to rest and to explain my family what I had been up to.

One of the many Arab-Kurdish meetings taking place in Raqqa province.
One of the many Arab-Kurdish meetings taking place in Raqqa province. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

But you decided to come back again. Why?

During my first trip I had identified several needs. I had seen people get injured and die for a lack of both medical knowledge and equipment.

I came up with the idea of [establishing] a medical unit [two ambulances and foreign doctors to cope with the lack of basic knowledge on the frontline]. It ended up training a lot of Kurds. We made an open call for doctors who had experience on the frontline. We needed people who were politically aware, who understood what was going on and who knew they were here just to help.

You talk about a ‘revolution’ taking place. Can you elaborate?

What pockets of the West fail to understand is that it’s impossible to plant a western styled democracy and that will fit like a glove.

One of the things I've truly understood since I came here is how, via imperialism, communities in the Middle East have been cut up between straight lines to a point where countries are almost ungovernable because they have such large minorities.

What we’ve been waiting for is an indigenous democratic movement, somebody who comes from the Middle East that will recognize the diversity of the region, understands its history – something Americans never managed to do – and builds a sustainable future for everybody.

And who better to do this than the Kurds, who have been brutalized by the countries where they live in? Through this suffering has emerged a greater understanding of what they want to achieve.

Now the Kurds are liberating themselves, why should they treat local Arabs, Turks or Persians the way they treated them for so many years? They’ve, helped devise an ideology, Democratic Confederalism, which gives rights back to the people and promotes a shared future.

This a localized movement and that is very much part of its success. The Kurds have lived side-by-side with Christians and Arabs, and they understand that it has to be like that. This is a revolution in every sense of the word. The Middle East has been waiting for a revolution to come along, it’s almost like a renaissance for this part of the world.

A view of Raqqa's frontline.
A view of Raqqa's frontline. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

How long will you stay?

I don’t consider myself a soldier any more. It’s true that when I came here I wanted to fight Daesh, but nowadays I consider myself as an observer to history in the making, to fundamental changes in the Middle East. Everyone is doing their part, whether it’s picking up the garbage in the streets, teaching Kurdish or running the local councils.

All this is happening during a violent confrontation, during a revolution and a conventional war against a well funded and trained enemy which is determined to destroy everything they’ve achieved.

The Middle East is a hotbed for revolution and I want to see how far this goes. I want it to spread beyond Syria. Fascism, Nationalism, fundamentalism and all the ‘isms’ that we don’t like find a very good audience in the Middle East because of poverty, a lack of education, communities alienated by the governments… That’s the fertile ground for all these isms.

With the Middle East we in the West need to start thinking about how important it is to invest in the region, to invest in their jobs, to give them a secular education and build a democratic framework like that of Democratic Confederalism that gives them rights, then the Middle East will have a much brighter future than it has now.

Macer Gifford as he meets New Internationalist.
Macer Gifford as he meets New Internationalist. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

How do you see the country and the region in the next five years?

There’s a difference between your hopes and what the future might bring. I want to see is a peace treaty between Assad and the SDF and I also want the Turks to withdraw from Syria.

I really think the SDF should be the democratic opposition to Assad. The country might be divided in two: one part run by the regime and the other by the SDF. Assad is a dictator but not a fool and I think he’s willing to negotiate with the SDF.

I want to see the end of the civil war and I want to see the federation as a model for the rest of the region.

We will surely defeat Daesh but I also want the revolution to spread across Syria and beyond.

All photos by Karlos Zurutuza


If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Riza Altun, co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union and executive member of the Kurdistan Communities Union: A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East

Zagros Hiwa, the first point of contact for reporters looking to cover the Kurdish guerrilla movement: The face behind the PKK story

Bese Hozat, female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union: ‘Freedom can’t be contained by a wall’