The killing of a Syrian Kurdish politician in northern Syria during a Turkish military offensive has raised criticism worldwide, with the murder reportedly committed by Ankara-backed rebels.
Hevrin Khalaf of the Future Syria Party was killed during Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, allegedly by Syrian rebels, who released a statement to deny the killing.
The incident sparked an international debate, with Turkish officials, Syrian rebels, Amnesty International officials, the Syrian Future Party and Kurdish paramedics voicing different accounts of what happened to the politician.
Who was Hevrin Khalaf?
Hevrin Khalaf was born in 1984 in the town of al-Malakayah in northern Syria. She grew up in a politicized family environment.
After having graduated from the Agricultural Engineering department at the University of Aleppo, she returned to her hometown.
Politically active since her youth, Khalaf joined the Democratic Union Party (PYD) leadership in 2012.
She then assumed duty in the “Jazirah Canton Energy Ministry” and the “Economy Ministry.” During that time, she worked to provide electricity to homes, and battled for women’s rights, environmental matters and agricultural reform.
Shortly after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Raqqa from ISIS, Khalaf was elected as the Secretary General of the Future Syria Party, which was founded in Raqqa in 2018.
The founding of the party sparked both criticism and praise on the international scene. In Turkey, a number of media outlets claimed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group in Turkey, founded it.
“They can’t fool the Turkish Republic and our sacred nation, whatever the clothing or name they come up with,” said then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.
It was also said the U.S. had founded the party so as to reduce Turkish pressure on the PYD. Others contended the objective was to reach non-Kurdish parts of the Syrian society. Rejecting such claims, officials from the Syria Future Party maintained the new party was independent and pursued its own agenda.
In contrast to the PYD, the party did not emphasize a need for political autonomy in northern Syria. Speaking at the party’s inaugural meeting, İbrahim al-Kaftan had said that the party would have good relations with Syria’s neighbors Iraq and Turkey.
Those who knew Secretary General Khalaf say she had been heavily involved in recent negotiations with Western countries and was a skilled diplomat. It is also said that Khalaf often underlined the need for dialogue among Syrians in order to solve the Syrian crisis.
When and where did the incident occur?
Khalaf died on Oct. 12, during the fourth day of Operation Peace Spring.
In an interview with the Erbil-based media outlet Rudaw, Khalaf’s mother Suad Mohammad said: “I was with her the morning of the day she was killed. Her driver’s father had died due to natural causes and Hevrin was in Derik to visit relatives. She had meetings in Raqqa and Tabka. I told her to stay with me or I would go with her too. She told me everything was going to be alright.”
Khalaf had set off in her black SUV car, along with her driver. The car had opted for the M4 highway which runs parallel to the Turkish border. The incident reportedly happened on this highway, somewhere between Tell Tamir and Ayn Issa.
What were the reactions to the death?
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed Khalaf was killed by armed rebels who had taken over control of a part of the highway.
The United Nations said it had collected information about human rights violations, including a claim that Khalaf was “executed” by the Ahrar al-Sharqiya organization on the M4 highway.
The UN called on Turkey to investigate the events.
Spokesperson for the Syrian National Army (SNA), a Turkey-backed rebel group, Yusuf Hammed denied the killing.
“I assure you that our forces have not reached the M4 highway,” Hammed told Reuters.
Hammed also stated that they have taken over another road near the border, not the M4, and denied allegations that they killed nine civilians on the M4.
What did the Syrian Kurds say?
Future Syria Party Chairman Ibrahim al-Kaftan said that while they hold a particular organization responsible for the incident, they see Turkey as the truly responsible party.
Speaking to BBC’s Turkish service, al-Kaftan also criticized Turkey’s Afrin operation and stated their wish for the international community to treat the incident as a war crime and hold Ankara responsible.
In a statement, the SDF said Khalaf had been ambushed by armed rebels before being taken out of the car and killed.
According to the SDF, the Ahrar al-Sharqia militia is responsible. As does al-Kaftan, the SDF also regards it as a war crime committed by the Turkish government, since Ankara supports such groups.
How was Hevrin Khalaf killed?
The Amnesty International said Khalaf was dragged out of the car by the Ahrar al-Sharqiya militia, beaten and killed in a cold-blooded manner. Khalaf’s driver was also killed on the same spot.
Speaking to BBC Turkish, Amnesty International Syria researcher Diana Semaan said that they collected eye witness testimonies, video footage and examined an independent medical report before reaching these conclusions.
According to Semaan, a colleague of Hevrin Khalaf told Amnesty International that they had called Hevrin that very day.
The colleague said they called Khalaf repeatedly until someone answered the phone, introducing himself as an armed Syrian rebel.
“All you Kurds are traitors, all of you at the party are spies,” the rebel reportedly said in Arabic and and then shot Hevrin.
In a video footage taken at the location of the incident, but not verified by independent sources, militants attempt to drag someone out of a black car riddled with bullet holes and with slashed tires.
In the video aired by CNN on Oct. 14, the car seems to be on the side of the road.
Another video published by Kurdish journalist Ali Rızgar Dicle on Oct. 15 also includes detailed footage of the car.
Meanwhile, other executions reportedly took place on the same day in the area that Khalaf was killed.
Semaan says they have confirmed that two other execution videos unrelated to Khalaf were filmed in the same area, around the same time.
Upon evaluating different videos related to the incident, the UK-based international research site Bellingcat said that it had concluded that the executions, including the killing of Khalaf, were carried out at the same location.
What about the medical report?
The medical report which Amnesty International used as its source and which was obtained by BBC Turkish shows that Khalaf was shot many times from close range, dragged by her hair and beaten.
The report was prepared by forensics doctor Tayseer al-Makdisi from the International Malikiyah Hospital in the town of al-Malikiyah.
The report also shows Khalaf received blows from hard and sharp objects on her head and other parts of her body, resulting in skull and other bone fractures.
In another section of the report, it is stated that in addition to bullets fired from various distances, there were also some fired from a 40-75 centimeter range. Moreover, it is stated she was shot in the back after falling on the ground, the bullets coming out of her groin.
She was also dragged by her hair, resulting in torn hair and skin.
The report states that the cause of the death was heavy cerebral hemorrhaging due to being shot in the head.
What did Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s cameraman say?
As discussions on Hevrin Khalaf’s death went on, a person named Haris Rabah who introduced himself as a cameraman for Ahrar al-Sharqiya, spoke to several media outlets, including the daily Asharq al-Awsat.
Rabah said that he was at the checkpoint on the M4 highway at the time of the incident, that several fractions reached the M4 very early and set up a checkpoint. He also said that Khalaf’s car was fired at after it did not stop at the checkpoint.
“The YPG [People’s Protection Units] did not yet know about developments and the Syrian National Army took advantage of this and set up traps along the M4 highway. SNA members were stopping cars and checking who was inside them. They fired at anyone who did not stop their car and tried to run away,” Rabah told Asharq al-Awsat.
“In the meantime, Hevrin Khalaf and her driver were coming through with an armored Toyota along with two pickup trucks as protection. Two pickups were stopped and passengers were arrested. But Khalaf’s car did not stop, ran over one of the SNA soldiers and escaped.”
“No one knew that there was a women or a politician inside. As they were shooting at the tires, they were sure that whoever was inside were criminals. Because local population would not have an armored car.”
Claiming “it was not a planned action,” Rabah said that the incident was not a war crime.
What does the leader of Ahrar al-Sharqiya say about the claims?
Ahrar al-Sharqiya leader Abu Hatem al-Shaqra has said that they had nothing to do with Khalaf’s death.
He also commented on the videos that allegedly show the incident.
“These videos don’t verify the claims of those who oppose Operation Peace Spring. When the National Army took over the M4 highway, one of its subgroups created a joint barricade. Two of the three military vehicles fast approaching the barricade did not stop, kept going fast and hit a National Army vehicle, damaged some assets and one person’s leg was broken. It then stopped and people inside spread along the road. There was fighting between escaping cars and National Army cars and some soldiers were injured,” he told BBC Turkish via Whatsapp.
Saying that the news about Hevrin Khalaf’s death are contradictory, al-Shaqra said he thinks Khalaf might have been killed as part of a rift within the PKK.
“When making an official statement about Hevrin’s death, her family said in a statement that she was killed on a plane. The YPG/PYD said she was killed with a bomb. There was a photograph claiming she died under rubble. I think this was a revenge amongst different branches of the PKK,” he added.
When BBC Turkish sent photos of Khalaf at the location on the day, the autopsy and the Habis Rabah interview as response, al-Shaqra said he had answered all questions.
How does the ‘Syrian National Army’ assess the events which resulted in Khalaf’s death?
BBC Turkish got in touch with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defense regarding both Khalaf’s death and some human rights violations attributed to some rebel groups.
An official from the Foreign Ministry said that “international media is using such claims to damage the legitimacy of Operation Peace Spring, there is a lot of dark propaganda, chemical weapon claims were debunked, and if there were any human rights violations Turkey will never accept them, because of this a research commission that has been created inside the SNA which is currently looking into the matter.”
The official recommended getting into contact with the Syrian National Army for detailed information about the commission.
Abdurrahman Mustafa: There have been arrests
BBC Turkish then spoke to Abdurrahman Mustafa, the president of the structure defining itself as the Syrian Temporary Government, which the Syrian National Army is linked to.
Mustafa also said that there was “dark propaganda” being spread about the operation and if there were any violations, necessary action would be taken.
Mustafa gave information about the commission’s efforts and said that Khalaf’s death is one of the matters the commission is looking into.
“We inform our commanders inside the National Army about the Geneva Convention on human rights violations during wartime. But people make claims and those are exaggerated. There have been such successful sacrifices but they spread propaganda using one or two incidents, hoping to cast shadow on the operation,” he said.
“After the National Army was founded, we set up a commission within our Defense Ministry. It includes a Deputy Defense Minister, a military prosecutor and a military police member. We are looking into all of these claims. We have also set up a court at Tell Abyad. We will inform the media about the results of our research in upcoming days,” he added.
Mustafa also said there had been arrests among militants as a result of the investigation.
“We will see what to take to court. If the investigation finds any evidence, if there are human rights violations or war crimes, we will take them to court transparently. There have been arrests. They will be tried but nothing has moved onto courts, if the investigation results find it necessary, they will be lawfully tried in court,” he said.
Describing Khalaf’s death as a “serious claim,” Mustafa said there have also been arrests connected to the incident.
Mustafa also maintained the investigation was ongoing though it had yet to yield results. He also said that if people were to be found guilty in court, necessary mechanisms are in place to carry out sentences like a state of law.