TAWILA, Syria — Late last year, two American Marxists traveled to northeastern Syria with the goal of experiencing firsthand the egalitarian utopia Syria's Kurds are seeking to build.
Instead, they found themselves fighting on the front lines of a war, against the Islamic State and alongside the agents of imperialism their political convictions have taught them to despise.
For Brace Belden, 27, a florist from San Francisco, and Lucas Chapman, 21, a Georgetown University history graduate, a journey intended to deepen their understanding of how socialism works turned into much more of an adventure than they had anticipated. They fired guns, got shot at, and as they prepared to head home, have learned from news reports that a movie is going to be made about them, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Belden and Chapman are among hundreds of Westerners who have made the journey to northeastern Syria over the past two years to volunteer with the Kurds, which is not illegal in the United States. Many of them are U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who want to get into the fight.
Some, however, like Belden and Chapman, are idealists, intrigued by the new society the Syrian Kurds claim to be building. The two men, who did not know each other until they arrived in Syria, say they had intended to immerse themselves in the community structures being established by the People's Democratic Union, the Marxist-inspired political party that controls northeastern Syria.
After an arduous trek through the mountains to circumvent controls on the border between Syria and Iraq, they completed an obligatory, month-long training course in ideology, language and basic military skills.
Then they were given uniforms, assigned to the heavy weapons unit of the party's military wing — known as the YPG, or People's Protection Units — and dispatched to the front line outside Raqqa, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital. There they became part of the ongoing, U.S.-backed offensive aimed at encircling the city that is expected soon to lead to a final assault on the Islamic State's most symbolically important possession.
It wasn't always as exciting as it sounds. When we met them in late November at an abandoned farmhouse in a pinprick of a village north of Raqqa, they were sipping tea in the bright winter sun, smoking cigarettes and waiting for something to happen. A chicken slurped on the remnants of their previous round of tea, discarded on a tray nearby. A couple of mortars exploded, too far away to be of concern.
"It's fairly boring," said Chapman, who had been living in Washington until he graduated in history from Georgetown last summer.
"It's really boring," said Belden, who sold potted plants and flowers in San Francisco before deciding he wanted to witness the practice of his Marxist beliefs. "It's true what they say about war — that it's 10 percent action and 90 percent waiting for something to happen."
At least in the early stages of the Raqqa operation, now in its fifth month, the Islamic State put up little resistance, choosing instead to plant booby traps and fire mortars to slow the advance of their enemies, but avoiding direct confrontation.
As novices to war, both men seemed relieved that this was the case. Though they had not met before showing up together at the training course last October, they had since bonded over their shared lack of experience in all things military, and their befuddlement at finding themselves riding into battle equipped with weapons they barely knew how to use. Their unit possessed some truck-mounted guns known as "Dushkas," a makeshift armored vehicle and some light artillery, which it wasn't their job to fire.
"Anyone can learn it, if they want to. A life of floristry has definitely prepared me for this," Belden said, meaning the opposite.
They had, however, fired the AK-47 automatic weapons that were issued to them. "If ISIS are being shot at by a weedy guy like me, they must be losing," said Belden, who doesn't think he killed anyone but can't be sure.
Chapman said he had nearly opened fire on an ISIS fighter, a man with a big beard who looked suspicious from a distance of about 800 yards, but his commander ordered him not to, so he didn't.
The growing U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria is one of the reasons Belden and Chapman have decided to head home soon, despite intentions expressed earlier this year to stay for the final Raqqa offensive. The YPG has forged a close military alliance with the United States, which has about 1,000 troops serving alongside Kurdish and Arab forces and is expected to send 1,000 more.
Though they rarely encountered the U.S. forces, the American presence was disconcerting for committed Marxists dedicated to the overthrow of the Western capitalist system.
"As a Marxist, I have to get used to contradictions. It's more a case of two interests aligning temporarily," said Belden, who does not believe the alliance will last. But, he said, he wouldn't fight alongside U.S. ground troops. "I do oppose all American presence in Syria. The U.S. Army and Marines represent something totally reprehensible to me."
Chapman fears the United States will eventually abandon the Kurds and their socialist experiment after using them to conquer Raqqa. "They've betrayed the Kurds before, and I wouldn't be surprised if they do it again," he said. "They're occupiers and imperialists."
Other aspects of their experience jolted the assumptions they had come with. They were perturbed by the relish with which the YPG greeted the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, who is being hailed within the secularist group as an enemy of Muslims. Chapman is an observant Jew, and one of his hopes was to find a way to bridge the gulf between Muslims and Jews by demonstrating his solidarity with Islam. Instead, he found himself fighting alongside people who denounced Muslims.
"There's a lot about it that's not utopia," he said. "It's disappointing when people say things like 'All Muslims must leave.'"
After their spell on the front lines together, he and Belden parted ways. Chapman joined a medical unit, which he said he found more rewarding than fighting. Belden teamed up with a different militia, called the United Freedom Forces, or BOG, founded by Marxist Leninist Kurds from Turkey. With them, he said, he found some of the socialist kinship he had been seeking, as well as more action on the battlefield.
They have now reunited for the journey home. Chapman, who has learned to speak Kurdish, hopes to work with Kurdish organizations in the United States. Belden wants to marry his girlfriend and return to Syria with her — to join a Marxist-Leninist political organization, not to fight.
He also has another wish — to halt production of the planned movie, which is based on an article in Rolling Stone called "The Anarchists vs. the Islamic State." The proposal for a film to be directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring Gyllenhaal as Belden was recently announced by the Hollywood Reporter. Belden, who says he is not an anarchist, was as surprised as all of his friends when he found out about it.
"I've got to stop this movie. It'll probably be exploitative and orientalist. It will taint everything I do," he said in a message as he prepared to leave Syria this week. "I'm a communist. I don't want fame."