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The Betrayal of the Kurds

On the ground in northern Syria in the perilous weeks after Trump’s military withdrawal
Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone

O n the morning of October 12th, Hevrin Khalaf, a rising young Kurdish political leader, rode along the M4 highway in northern Syria. Seated in the back of a bulletproof Toyota SUV, she rushed past the battle-scarred villages of her homeland, now three days into a brutal military assault from Turkey, made possible by Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from the region. She was on her way to Raqqa, the short-lived capital of the Islamic State and the largest and most heavily damaged city in Kurdish-held territory. Raqqa was beginning to recover, and Khalaf was headed to one of her frequent political meetings there. In 2018, she had helped found the Future Syria Party (FSP), with the lofty goal of advancing pluralism and democracy across Syria’s sectarian fault lines.

Khalaf, 35, a Syrian Kurd with long brown hair and a dimpled chin, believed a new kind of politics was needed. Kurds, Christians, Turkmens, and Arabs alike had suffered under the Syrian regime and ISIS’ reign of terror, and she wanted to unify historically fractious communities fed up with violence. “The aim of our party is unity and brotherhood for everybody who lives on this land,” she said in February. “We will engage in dialogue with all people to restore the spirit of tolerance in the region.”

Khalaf lived in Derik, a working-class city of cinder-block buildings, about six miles from the Turkish border. It was part of the Kurdish-led semi-autonomous region in northeast Syria known as Rojava, an area that became a symbol of hope for the long-persecuted minority, 35 million strong, divided among four hostile countries. Rojava champions diversity, self-rule, and women’s rights. It is the “most inclusive governance structure in the most diverse region of Syria,” says Nicholas Heras, the Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The democratic experiment could not have emerged under more adverse circumstances. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime is determined to reclaim every inch of territory lost during the country’s nine-year civil war, and it has made steady gains, with backing from Russia and Iran. The Kurds and Assad had maintained a de facto non-aggression pact for most of the conflict, allowing the Kurds to focus on their own affairs until the ISIS threat emerged. Aided by U.S. air power and special forces, Kurdish fighters cleared the militants from one-third of the country, at a cost of more than 11,000 lives.

The hard-won calm was shattered in early October. Khalaf’s car sped through a countryside once again under bombardment. Less than a week earlier, following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump ordered all U.S. military forces to withdraw from Syria, effectively greenlighting the attack on the Kurds. Turkey had already launched limited military operations along the border in 2016 and 2018 but had been held in check by the American presence. They viewed the Kurds’ main force, the YPG, as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which it considers a terrorist group. Turkey’s declared intention is to create a 20-mile-deep, 300-mile-long “safe zone” in Kurdish lands, to buffer Turkish territory and resettle millions of Syrian war refugees. But people fear a more malevolent goal. “It has to be understood,” says Kurdish journalist Mohammed A. Salih, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, “as a deliberate act of setting up the Kurds and religious minorities in northeastern Syria for ethnic cleansing.”

Khalaf had brushed aside warnings not to travel. “She was braver than any man I know,” says her friend and party member, Samira Abdel Aziz. On the highway near the town of Tal Abyad, Khalaf’s vehicle was ambushed by Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a Turkish-backed militia. A video posted online shows the Toyota askew off-road, riddled with bullets. The driver lies dead, facedown in the dirt as militants crowd around him. “Another fleeing pig has been liquidated by the hands of the National Army,” one man gloats. A female voice is briefly audible in the background. These are the last words ever heard from Khalaf.

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Khalaf advocated for tolerance and democracy. “Hevrin didn’t believe violence would work,” her mother says. “She never touched a bullet.”
Photograph by Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone
Cengiz Yar / Rolling Stone

I entered Syria 10 days into the Turkish assault, coming overland from Iraq, taking the only border crossing still open, at Semelka, a pontoon bridge across the Tigris River. Vans packed with people pass us on their way out, sagging close to the ground. We drive fast, past shuttered shops and billboards of martyred YPG fighters, eager to get off the dark road. ISIS sleeper cells and militias had been setting up fake checkpoints, and Turkish shells were killing and maiming at random.

Under fire from both Republicans and Democrats for his careless decision, Trump had dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to broker a temporary cease-fire, but artillery barrages, drone attacks, and ground incursions continued, making a mockery of Trump’s pledge to “obliterate” the Turkish economy with sanctions if it did anything “off-limits.” To date, several hundred civilians have been killed and more than 300,000 people displaced, most of them pushed deeper into Kurdish-held territory, where schools are being converted into shelters. Another 15,000 and counting have become refugees in Iraq.

I visit Khalaf’s family compound in Derik. Relatives and friends grieve in silence and drink bitter coffee beneath posters of her face. Wearing an all-black abaya festooned with a YPG flag pin, Khalaf’s mother, Souad Mohammad, takes phone calls from media outlets in Europe. “I hope the blood of my daughter will unite all of Kurdistan — Kurds, Arabs, Christians — and I hope the whole nation will live in peace,” Mohammad says, her anger building in a crescendo that fills the room. “Hevrin sacrificed her soul for this. Sehid namirin! Sehid namirin! Sehid namirin!” Martyrs never die.

Mohammad shows me a wall-to-wall banner featuring her two brothers and first-born daughter — all of them guerrillas who died fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. Khalaf’s image had been added to the martyrs’ gallery, but her mother insists she was a different breed: “Hevrin did not believe violence would work. She never touched a bullet.”

Khalaf’s promise did not go unnoticed by U.S. officials. She and other leaders were tasked with the “necessary and often thankless task of building stability after ISIS that the U.S. had required of them,” says Heras. On October 3rd, State Department representatives had visited the FSP in Raqqa, says party president Ibrahim al-Qaftan, and assured them that their party would have a role in international talks over Syria’s future. (The State Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

As secretary-general of the Future Syria Party, Khalaf kept a dizzying schedule and met frequently with Arab tribal leaders to build trust and resolve disputes, says al-Qaftan, an Arab. She also led workshops for victims of domestic abuse and tutored students in math, leaving little time for herself.

“She was concerned with bigger things,” says Steristan Haji, a friend since childhood. Never married, Khalaf lived in the same room she grew up in, with few indulgences: scented candles, dark chocolate, poetry. Haji hands me a half-finished volume by Kurdish writer Loran Khatib about a woman’s struggle for respect in a conservative, male-centric culture. “Hevrin always said we must raise our voice,” says Haji.

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Marwan Khalif, a fighter with the Kurds, was killed by Turkish-backed militants who were clearing the way for the Syrian Arab refugees to be resettled in Kurdish lands.
Photograph by Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone
Cengiz Yar / Rolling Stone

According to an autopsy report, Khalaf sustained multiple gunshots and fractures to her leg and skull; flesh was ripped out of her scalp, a sign she had been dragged by force before execution. Turkish state-linked media immediately hailed a “successful operation” to “neutralize” a politician affiliated with a “terrorist” group. Khalaf, her driver, an aide, and at least eight more unarmed civilians were murdered that day on the same stretch of road. Amnesty International decried the summary killings and other indiscriminate attacks on residential areas as war crimes.

Khalaf’s mother says Khalaf’s face was mutilated beyond recognition, her neck, ears, and wrists stripped of jewelry, like they wanted to “erase” her. “She was not against Turkey; she was not against anyone,” Mohammad says. “How could the U.S. let Erdogan do this?”

Since before taking office, Trump had expressed an aversion to open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. But for a businessman with a cynically transactional nature, supporting the Kurds made good sense: a low-cost, high-reward investment (the U.S. had about 1,000 special forces on the ground) that held stability across a vast swath of Syria while keeping Assad’s regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, in check.

“You are leaving us to be slaughtered,” Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told the top American diplomat in northern Syria, William Roebuck, in a meeting the day Khalaf was killed. If the U.S. did not intervene, he warned, he would be forced to cut a deal with Russia and Assad, for protection from Turkey. Ten days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan announced a pact that saw Russian and Turkish forces take joint control of Kurdish-held -territory. Seemingly on a whim, Trump had managed to upend the dream of Rojava; swing the balance of power in Syria decisively in favor of arch foes Assad, Russia, and Iran; and risk giving a second wind to ISIS.

The sudden shift and ignominy that followed — Russian flags raised at vacant U.S. outposts, Kurds pelting American convoys with rocks and garbage — has rankled active-duty special-forces operatives. “The guys I’ve spoken with are very disappointed,” says a veteran of the campaign against ISIS. “The Kurds are the most motivated and capable partner forces I’ve ever served with — they fought to the death — and they’ve gotten the short end of the stick again,” he says, noting the long history of American betrayal of the Kurds, including when President George H.W. Bush called on them to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, only to stand by as they were massacred.

“The consequences of such unreliability from the Oval will reverberate well beyond Syria,” tweeted Brett McGurk, who served as the special presidential envoy to combat ISIS from 2015 to 2018. “The value of an American handshake is depreciating. Trump today said we could ‘crush ISIS again’ if it regenerated. With who? What allies would sign up? Who would fight on his assurances?”

U.S. officials estimate there are as many as 18,000 ISIS members still at large in Iraq and Syria; another 12,000 are being held in Kurdish prisons, where control is now in jeopardy. A Kurdish intelligence official tells me that all ISIS prisoners have been relocated farther south from the Turkish-occupied zone. “We are protecting not just for Europe but all the world,” he says, “but our biggest priority is fighting against Turkey and the defense of our nation.” Half the prison guards have been pulled away to fight since the invasion began, he says, and more than 100 fighters have already escaped, along with 785 sympathizers.

ISIS is brazenly exploiting the vacuum. In Qamishli, a bomb detonated in the city center the day I left, the second attack in as many weeks attributed to ISIS. On November 11th, three explosions claimed six more lives. That same day, an Armenian priest and his father were murdered on a highway south of the city. ISIS took credit. According to the Rojava Information Center, ISIS is targeting people who work with Kurdish-led authorities in Deir Ezzour province, claiming over 100 killings since the Turkish invasion. Lina Abdulwahid, another female leader of the Future Syria Party, was shot on November 17th but survived.

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Children play outside Khalaf’s home in Derik, six miles from the Turkish border, well within shelling range. A spate of videos online shows Kurdish captives being tortured and executed by Turkish-backed militants.
Photograph by Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone
Cengiz Yar / Rolling Stone

Meanwhile, Trump has backtracked on his call for a full withdrawal and redeployed U.S. troops to secure oil fields around Deir Ezzour. Despite his claims of “massive amounts of oil,” Syria’s reserves amount to less than one percent of global output, and experts say it would require many years and billions in investment to rehabilitate the infrastructure. And then there’s the fact that the oil belongs to Syria. Senior U.S. officials have tried to downplay the oil gambit, but Trump has been publicly stating that troops remain “only for the oil.” Some 500 to 600 U.S. forces will stay indefinitely with a hazy mandate to protect oil fields, not our besieged Kurdish allies who sacrificed so much in the name of pluralism.

In November, a leaked memo from Roebuck, the American envoy in northern Syria, slammed the Trump administration for not doing enough to stop the Turkish invasion, which “represents an intention-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.” House Democrats and Republicans are trying to impose sanctions on Turkey, but the legislation would have to pass a Republican-controlled Senate and then be signed by the president. Were there any doubt on where Trump stands, on November 13th he honored Erdogan with a White House reception and thanked him for the job he’s done in Syria, declaring himself “a big fan.”

The road from Qamishli to Iraq is grim. “Rojava is our nation,” says our chain-smoking driver, Abdulrahman, waving a tattooed arm across the horizon. “We are not refugees on this land — this is our land!” But the scenes we pass say otherwise. Some SDF checkpoints are totally empty, torn flags whipping in the wind; others are guarded by a few holdouts. Oil pumps creak on the gray horizon, the air tinged with acrid smoke from makeshift refineries. Flatbed trucks full of fleeing families queue at gas stations. Those without transport wait roadside for a ride, clutching what they can carry: infants, bedrolls, plastic bags of clothes.

As we move along, Abdulrahman concedes it may be time to move his family to Iraq — or “pick up my gun again” — fearful that the Syrian regime will expand its presence and enact reprisals. The previous night, Russia and Turkey announced a deal to carry out joint ground patrols in northeast Syria and allow Syrian troops to move back into border areas from which they’d been absent for years.

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Juliet Nicola recovers from shrapnel wounds to her back and stomach in a hospital in Qamishli, the de facto capital of Rojava. “She may never walk again,” says her husband, Fadi. Their home and shop were destroyed by Turkish shelling.
Photograph by Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone
Cengiz Yar / Rolling Stone

Until Rojava, Kurds had lived as second-class citizens in Syria, their language and culture suppressed. Back in 2008, Abdulrahman spent 14 months in prison for lighting a bonfire on the Naw Ruz holiday, disregarding a regime prohibition against celebrations. When fighting broke out in his native Aleppo, he joined a Kurdish protection unit and fought more than three years to beat back jihadist and Assad forces, losing some 30 friends along the way. “Nowhere is safe for the Kurds,” he says. “If the racist regime comes back, they won’t allow us to breathe.”

Erdogan intends to fill Kurdish areas with 2 million Syrian Arabs who are currently refugees in Turkey. Proxy militias are clearing the way, deploying cruel shock tactics. Turkish-backed fighters have been accused of attacking civilians with white phosphorus, a highly flammable chemical that eats flesh. A spate of videos has emerged showing militants torturing Kurdish captives and mutilating dead bodies. In one recording, a man goes door-to-door in the border town Serekaniye, shouting “kill the pigs, kill the infidels” as he spray-paints vacant homes to differentiate which belonged to Kurds, Christians, and Muslim Arabs. He pledges to burn the first, loot the second, and leave the third untouched.

“Turkey is planting the seeds of future civil strife between Arabs and Kurds,” says Hassan Hassan, director of the nonstate actors program at the Center for Global Policy. He suspects that radical militias like Ahrar al-Sharqiya, the group that killed Khalaf, have been put forward as the “face” of the campaign to aggravate sectarian tensions. “It is a sinister agenda.”

When we reach the border, Abdulrahman bids us a quick goodbye, eager to get back to his wife and children in Qamishli. He named his baby girl Hevrin; she was born two days after the politician was slain. I ask why he chose her name. “Because she gave us dignity,” he says.

Over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, refugee camps are swelling. At the entrance to Bardarash, a vast U.N.-run camp, Amin Mohammad and his family stand amid the swarm waiting for their housing assignment. Mohammad’s brother was killed by a Turkish shell in Serekaniye on the first day of the Turkish offensive, while riding his motorcycle to the market to buy food. Their family home was also leveled, and for the past 14 days they had moved from village to village, sleeping rough by the road and scrounging for food. “We are so tired,” Mohammad says. “I can’t think about the future of Rojava, just how to find rice to eat.”

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Bardarash, a U.N.-run camp just over the border in Iraq, has been swelling with thousands of refugees since the invasion.
Photograph by Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone
Cengiz Yar / Rolling Stone

For the next half-hour they wander through a maze of white canvas tents searching for their new home. They trudge past gaggles of scruffy children and the flat stares of families, until they spot a tent spray-painted with their number, C-652. Daylight is fading fast, and everyone hurries to set up bedding on the concrete slab, which is flooded from a broken outhouse pipe.

“I wish I had died in my home, not here,” says Mohammad’s wife, Hukmiya. “The Americans sold us out. May the same thing happen to Erdogan and Trump — one day they should live under a tent.”

Just across the lane, Selva Sedo cradles her nine-month-old daughter, Nivar. Originally from Raqqa, Sedo moved to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in 2014 to escape the fighting, and had to move again when Turkey occupied the town in early 2018. She was living in Serekaniye with her husband until Turkish shelling forced her to leave once more. “The war is following me,” she deadpans.

Sedo’s parents are still in Afrin. Most of its former 200,000 Kurdish residents have left, but those who remain face harassment and looting from Syrian Arab militias involved in Turkey’s current operation. “I’m so sick of fighting,” she says. “I want to leave Syria, [and] Kurdistan. I’ll go anywhere outside the Middle East.” After a pause, she asks. “Do you know anyone who can help me get to Europe?”

On my last afternoon in Syria, Souad Mohammad takes me out to the martyrs’ cemetery where Khalaf is buried. It sits on the outskirts of Derik, about three miles from the Turkish border, well within shelling range. An airstrike near the cemetery five days earlier forced the family to cancel a visit.

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Amin Mohammad’s family made it to Bardarash after two weeks on the road. Their home was leveled, and his brother killed by a shell on the first day of the assault. “I can’t think about the future of Rojava,” Mohammad says, “just how to find rice to eat.”
Photograph by Cengiz Yar for Rolling Stone
Cengiz Yar / Rolling Stone

The road out of town is empty of cars and people. With few words between us, we pass a vacant camp that used to house scores of Yazidis, the religious minority that Kurdish fighters rallied to save from an ISIS campaign of systemic slaughter as much of the world stood by and did nothing.

We pull up to the cemetery gate. More than 1,200 fallen are interred on the grounds, some 700 of whom perished in the battle against ISIS. We pass row after row of framed portraits of the dead, an even mix of women and men in camo fatigues, some stern and some smiling, until we arrive at Khalaf’s grave, draped with plastic flowers and a sash reading martyrs never die.

Mohammad sinks to her knees. “Oh, my dear, oh, my dear. How much I miss you. You gave your life for peace, your blood for brotherhood. Where are human rights? Where is the world?”

Nearby, a weary group of YPG fighters takes turns digging nine fresh graves for comrades killed in recent clashes at the border. Behind them, a walled expanse longer than a football field sprawls flat and unbroken, waiting for tomorrow’s casualties.