I first met Karim Franceschi in November 2016, in the hills of northeastern Syria, at a remote compound everyone called the Academy. It was a former oil facility that had been turned into a training camp for the volunteers from the U.S. and Europe who were coming to battle the Islamic State with the Kurds. A lot of the fighters were soldier-of-fortune types, veterans of the French Foreign Legion or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at least half were militant leftists like Franceschi, an avowed communist who wore a Mao pin on the lapel of his camouflage uniform. He had been one of the first to arrive, in October 2014, and by the time we met, he had seen more combat than any other Westerner around.
At 28, he was tall and dark and bearded, with a kind of glowering geniality about him. He was vague about his background, but I gathered he was born in Casablanca to a Moroccan mother and an Italian father, and grew up in a housing project in provincial Italy. He mentioned working in construction, but also spoke knowledgeably of cryptocurrencies and computer programming. He was fluent in six languages and spoke English with an inimitable inflection of Mediterranean and Maghrebi accents. The volunteers spent long hours sitting around drinking tea and smoking cigarettes; listening to Franceschi’s disquisitions on late capitalism, spiced with mordant asides on the Syrian Civil War, it was easy to fall under the sway of his charisma.
“A capitalist society is a shit society,” he said, “just as Egyptian society with the pyramids and pharaohs was a shit society. What we’re fighting for in Rojava is a socialist alternative.”
Franceschi was one of a motley mix of anarchists, Marxists and eccentric humanitarians who had come to take part in an obscure armed struggle known as the Rojava Revolution, the Kurds’ improbable attempt to establish an egalitarian democracy in a Belgium-size region just south of Turkey, known as Rojava. Like a lot of the volunteers, he saw it as his generation’s version of the Spanish Civil War, another conflict that attracted radical leftists from all over the world. But while tens of thousands of foreigners fought in the anti-fascist International Brigades between 1936 and 1938, 500 at most had showed up to defend the Kurds against the Islamic State, their chief nemesis. “In this revolution, the Western volunteers are basically a joke,”Franceschi told me. “A historic moment is being lost.”