Are the Free Burma Rangers Involved in Fighting Alongside the SDF?

Free Burma Rangers founder David Eubank insists the Christ-driven group is carrying out a solely humanitarian mission in northeastern Syria. What role do they really play?

EDITORIAL NOTE: After the initial publication of this article on November 20, 2019, many of the original photos and videos sourced within this article have been deleted by the users who uploaded them to social media. We’ve kept the original source links up for the sake of transparency.

On November 3rd, 2019, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) announced that one of their volunteers, longtime cameraman and medic Zau Seng, had been killed in a mortar strike allegedly carried out by the Syria National Army (SNA) — a Turkish-backed force composed of multiple Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian opposition groups currently involved in operations against the YPG and Assad regime forces to create a buffer zone along the Turkish border.

While Zau Seng’s death was initially reported by some on social media to have been a targeted drone strike, this claim was later disputed, with some members of the FBR asserting that the attack may have been a mortar shelling by Turkish forces.

Zau Seng was buried on November 7th, his body received in a special burial by the SDF during a ceremony for SDF fighters killed in recent fighting against the SNA and Turkish Armed Forces. The ceremony was attended by FBR founder Dave Eubank, along with Mazloum Abdi, the head of the SDF.

Since Seng was killed on the front lines and was commemorated in a ceremony honoring the deaths of martyrs in combat, the events surrounding his killing have been contentious, with some accusing the FBR of being mercenaries or commanding SDF forces, while others maintain that the group exists solely to provide humanitarian and medical support in Syria.

Although these contrasting views of the Free Burma Rangers paint a muddled picture of the group’s exact aims, there exists a substantial body of open-source and social media-sourced information by which we can establish a clearer timeline of the group’s operations in Syria, as well as their ultimate objectives and goals.

Who are the Free Burma Rangers?

According to the Free Burma Rangers website, they are “a multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement working to bring help, hope and love to people in the conflict zones of Burma, Iraq, and Sudan”. The group, which has been active since 1997, made its name providing aid and training to locals in Burma, where long-running internal ethnic conflicts have had a significant impact on locals.

FBR founder David Eubank baptizes a ranger during their annual training camp in Burma, 2019. [Source]

The FBR’s website is filled with references to Christianity, faith, and its applications. Throughout some of their marketing material, references to the performance of baptisms and references to finding God are common.

While the exact number of people affected by FBR religious services has not been tracked, at least one FBR member who I spoke to regarding the story noted that Eubank had performed multiple baptisms in Syria. The group’s social media channels have also posted about baptizing people in Iraq. But in an official statement, the FBR disputed that they had performed any baptisms in Syria to date, noting that the group has only performed baptisms in Iraq and Burma thus far.

Though the group received favorable coverage for their work in Burma, their serious return to the spotlight started when they became a go-to source for media outlets looking to get on-the-ground views in Mosul, an area where they provided aid and were active in rescuing civilians during operations against the Islamic State.

Dave Eubank, his wife Karen, and their children Sahale, Suuzanne, and Peter, stand in front of their armored ambulance in western Mosul, Iraq in June of 2019.

FBR would later shift operations in the Middle East to Syria, where Eubank would similarly continue rescue and aid operations, alongside other FBR volunteers in addition to his young children, who he brought with him during operations against IS in Baghouz.

Their role in Syria has recently been put into question, with some claiming that the FBR is not an aid organization, but a part of the YPG or SDF, assisting them in operations and taking part in combat with the SDF.

In an exclusive interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Eubank said the FBR had been working in northeastern Syria for at least the past three weeks, since the onset of Turkish military operations in the area.

“We had to hide our vehicles because of Turkish drone strikes,” said a statement credited to Eubank and published in CBN, which noted that the ambulance carrying Zau Seng was specifically marked as a medical vehicle.

However, whereas some vehicles used by the FBR have explicit markings designating them as ambulances or medical vehicles, others don’t — and pictures obtained from multiple sources, including footage shared directly by Eubank himself, appear to show that the vehicle Zau Seng was riding in when he was killed was unmarked and covered in dirt so as to obscure its position on the front line.

As showcased in recent footage for the burial procession of Zau Seng, the FBR appears to maintain a fleet of ambulances and personnel carriers, mostly comprised of Toyota Land Cruiser trucks. Some of these vehicles are visibly marked with signage, in English and in Arabic, denoting them as ambulances. But others lack clearly distinguishable markings, and some appear designed specifically for combat, sporting portholes for the occupants to shoot from.

In a statement provided to us by Hosannah Valentine, a longtime Free Burma Rangers member and apparent spokesperson for the group, the FBR disputed that their role in Syria exists in a combat capacity, noting the group is “partnered with the Kurdish Red Crescent NGO in Syria to provide impartial humanitarian relief to anyone in need.”

Targeting Medical Workers

Under the Geneva conventions, and many other similar statements and agreements as part of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the targeting of medical workers is strictly prohibited. Medical workers, whether combat medics providing care for injured fighters or aid organizations like the Red Cross, are protected from attacks while carrying out their work.

“Medical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease, staff exclusively engaged in the administration of medical units and establishments, as well as chaplains attached to the armed forces, shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.”

Geneva Convention 1, Article 24

Countries found to be knowingly targeting aid workers would violate these principles and be guilty of war crimes. To make it possible for identification, aid organizations like the Red Cross make use of clearly marked vehicles that can be identified by combatants as medical personnel.

In some cases, governments and parties to the conflict may exploit the visible markings of medical and humanitarian vehicles to openly target those forces — such as the Assad regime and its backers, which have institutionalized a policy of targeting medical workers as a basic denial-of-infrastructure strategy, including carrying out double-tap strikes on rescue workers and intentionally bombing hospital coordinates provided through deconfliction channels.

Similarly, under IHL, medics may carry arms and defend themselves and those under their care with force if attacked. These protections are lost if medics use their arms offensively rather than defensively. The FBR appear to be privy to this fact, as their spokesperson noted that while some of their volunteers carry arms and actively engage in combat, “at no time in Iraq, Burma, or Syria have we taken offensive action.”

Due to the controversy surrounding the death of Zau Seng, we seek to explore further the role of the FBR in conflict in northeastern Syria, including claims that the group engages solely defensively in contrast with allegations that they have participated in offensive military operations.

Are the Free Burma Rangers Taking Part in Military Operations Alongside the SDF?

An apparent FBR volunteer positioned next to a member of the SDF is seen firing an AK-pattern rifle. [Source]

A critical piece of documentation in determining whether the FBR have actively engaged in offensive combat operations in northern Syria is included in a video titled “Zau Seng’s Last Video: Rescuing the Wounded in Northeastern Syria on Nov. 2nd”.

In the footage, FBR founder Dave Eubank is seen coordinating the rescue of an injured SDF fighter. As the camera pans across, we see an unidentified man firing a rifle while positioned next to an SDF fighter.

The man, who appears to be affiliated with the FBR, is later seen taking cover.

The apparent FBR volunteer, seen wearing blue latex gloves, takes cover behind a makeshift fortification. [Source]

As Eubank and Zau Seng calls for medics, the clip is cut and skips to what seems to be previous unidentified man entering the car and closing the door.

The same man is seen closing the door to the camouflaged ambulance, which has a conspicuous gun port on its rear side window. [Source]

Between this scene and the next, their position is hit by something large. Zau Seng calls it out, orders people to fire at the tank, and says they need to move out of the area.

The FBR volunteer in blue gloves is seen aiming his rifle as he moves forward next to the ambulance. [Source]

Following this clip, we see the same volunteer moving between ambulances as they unload injured SDF fighters taken from the front lines. Although somewhat unfocused, we do get a picture of his face, and we also get a clear shot of the gear he is wearing.

An FBR volunteer carries Zau Seng into a camouflaged ambulance. [Source]

His clothing matches that found on a volunteer in a photo previously seen in the video shared by the FBR titled “Remembering Kachin Ranger Zau Seng Who Was Killed By Turkish-Supported Free Syrian Army Attack”, but this analysis doesn’t reveal more detailed imagery of the person.

The FBR volunteer helps Zau Seng out of an ambulance after it has been struck by ordnance. [Source]

Someone who appears to be the same volunteer can also be seen in a Firat News Agency video, but the quality is too low to make out his specific identity.

In order to identify the man in the video and confirm whether he was a foreign fighter, a medic with the FBR, or a member of the YPG, we began by mapping out the FBR’s online networks via SOCMINT sources. By looking at conversations, friends lists, and different interactions via publicly available social media pages, then cross-referencing various visual and contextual elements within these sources, we were able to determine that the man seen firing in the video is Jason Torlano, a volunteer medic with the FBR.

Torlano orders Joseph, a Burmese medic with the FBR, to begin providing cover fire. [Source]

Pictures on his Instagram fit the clothing of the man seen in the video, and Torlano himself uploaded video to his Instagram of the rescue where Joseph, one of FBR’s Burmese medics, is directed by Torlano to provide cover fire for fighters retreating to the ambulance.

The cameraman shooting the video appears to tell the fighters “Biji Serok Apo”, roughly translating as Long Live Apo, a common phrase expressed through out Kurdish nationalist groups praising Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK.

The Ambulance drives away under heavy fire.

Jason Torlano poses in a military uniform. His outfit and hair are closely comparable to those seen on the unidentified FBR volunteer in the first video. [Source]

In another picture posted in 2018, Torlano is seen wearing what appears to be the same cap as he wore on the day of Zau Seng’s death, the same one which is seen in recent footage of operations in northeastern Syria including “Zau Seng’s Last Video”.

Torlano dons a cap with the words “Free Ranger Kurd” printed in English on the front patch. [Source]

Jason Torlano left Syria on either the 11th or 12th of November, 2019, according to a post on his Instagram account. A day later he uploaded a picture, likely from his time in Syria, where he thanked SAA soldiers for allowing them to operate in the region without arresting them.

Although it’s difficult to tell who began the attack due to the low quality of footage and highly edited nature of clips released by the FBR, it does clearly show FBR members actively firing weapons on the front line and while engaged in combat with Turkish or Turkish-backed forces.

Whether this engagement occurred offensively or defensively can’t clearly be determined from the available video footage shared on open-source FBR media channels. However, careful analysis of FBR interactions with YPG forces provides additional useful information to this effect.

What’s the Extent of Cooperation Between the SDF, YPG, and the Free Burma Rangers?

A set of group photos uploaded by an FBR member to Instagram. SDF and YPG flags can be seen in the background, as well as an FBR banner. The Humvee pictured left is one of multiple Humvee fleet vehicles employed as ambulances by the FBR, which originally acquired them in Iraq and has used them previously during its operations in Mosul. [Source]

In photos uploaded to social media, various FBR members can be seen carrying AK pattern rifles while simultaneously sporting SDF and YPG patches. And in a statement provided to us by apparent FBR spokesperson Hosannah Valentine, the group confirmed the presence of some coordinated logistics between the FBR and YPG, saying that the FBR has previously been “called up” by YPG forces to assist in the evacuation of wounded YPG personnel in front line positions under attack by TFSA forces.

Joseph, a Burmese FBR medic, treats an injured soldier near Tel Tamr in Syria, some time in 2019. [Source]

FBR medics have also been seen holding rifles and carrying multiple magazines. One of the FBR medics can be seen in multiple images shared by the FBR carrying at least four magazines. This is likely Jason Torlano.

An unidentified individual, likely Jason Torlano, wears a MOLLE-style pack with at least four spare magazines.

Although again not directly confirming their connection with military operations by the SDF, it seems that medics and members of the FBR are well-armed to an extent discordant from most humanitarian personnel operating in conflict zones — particularly the Syrian Civil Defense, which maintains a consistent policy of training and equipping unarmed local personnel for rescue operations in areas under direct bombardment.

Given the military experience brought by many members and volunteers of the FBR, the extent to which the group participates in combat operations deserves further scrutiny.

In a statement provided to us, the Free Burma Rangers initially disputed claims that their volunteers were seen holding guns and wearing YPG insignias and patches on their uniforms. But after being shown visual evidence of this, its spokesperson revised her statement to note that “FBR members have worn YPG patches in Syria,” while claiming that a directive had been issued which prohibited teams in Syria from wearing YPG patches. “All of these we consider our friends,” said FBR spokesperson Hosannah Valentine, “but we’re not part of their organizations.”

Zau Seng sits next to David Eubank’s daughter, Sahale, and cleans his rifle — which is fitted with a red dot scope. [Source]

Humanitarians or Ideological Missionaries?

With no official number of volunteers reported by the organization, the FBR’s size and presence can’t be exhaustively determined. From social media posts shared by members of the group, we’ve been able to determine that the Free Burma Rangers generally fluctuate between 5–15 volunteers, including members of Eubank’s family.

Miles Vining, a volunteer with the FBR, posts up with a rifle on a front line position in northeastern Syria. Vining is also known alternatively as “Harry Bedford Exeter” and as Silah Report, a popular social media channel dedicated to reporting on small arms. [Source]

Despite a history of training large numbers of rangers and locals in Burma, their activities in Burma and Iraq have primarily consisted of small food handouts to locals, the performance of baptisms, and the rendering of medical aid. The latter activity is also seen prominently as part of FBR operations in northeastern Syria, where the group has rendered medical aid to SDF fighters on the front lines, and where they’ve also filmed themselves fighting.

FBR volunteers hand out aid to local IDPs near Ras al-Ayn in northeastern Syria, October 29th, 2019. [Source]

The FBR’s work in Burma has also been questioned in the past, where their efforts — as is often the case among international humanitarian groups operating locally on the ground in sensitive areas — are sometimes seen as moving between activism and humanitarianism. The group has, for example, trained soldiers in ethnic resistance armies in land mine removal and battlefield communications, two fields which in some applications may be seen as humanitarian, but which in others may be considered logistically or operationally supportive of combat efforts.

A 2019 CNN interview with David Eubank, in which their chyron describes him as an aid worker. [Source]

Despite this contentious and muddled history, the existence of the FBR and their actions across Syria consistently blur the line of humanitarian aid and targeted activism. While media and interviews with the FBR have framed the group as a humanitarian organization, this is an oversimplification of the actions and efforts being undertaken by the FBR on the front lines in northeastern Syria, much of which appears to actively endanger the safety of volunteers as well as that of Eubank’s family.

With a historical focus on baptizing local populations and providing battlefield training for armed organizations, and given the military history of many of its volunteers — specifically in the context of their apparent participation in combat alongside YPG forces in northeastern Syria — the existence of the Free Burma Rangers blurs the line between humanitarianism and ideological activism.