ROME – When Hevrin Khalaf, a young Syrian politician and advocate on behalf of women and religious and ethnic minorities in Kurdistan, was murdered by a Turkish-backed fringe group on Saturday amid Turkey’s new offensive in Syria, her death sparked outcry from around the world.
Many have voiced outrage, saying her senseless and bloody killing highlights not only the risk of innocent deaths posed by Turkey’s incursion, but also the risks that regional minorities face as one of their vocal advocates has again been silenced.
Known for her defense of women’s rights and her advocacy on behalf of Kurdish and Christian minorities in northern Syria, Khalaf, 35, was secretary general of the Syrian Future Party.
She was murdered Saturday, Oct. 12 after being ambushed by Turkish-backed groups in northeastern Syria. According to reports and video of the incident posted online, the group shot at Khalaf’s car before dragging her and her driver out of the vehicle and killing them.
After her death, the Future Party issued a statement voicing their “utmost grievance and sadness (for) the martyrdom of engineer Havrin Khalaf…while she was performing her patriotic and political duties.”
Details on exactly how Khalaf died are unclear. Some accounts suggest she was shot, while others say she was raped and stoned to death. Neither account has been officially verified.
Her murder comes at a time of heightened calls for U.S. president Donald Trump’s impeachment, with many now arguing that his decision to pull troops off the Syria-Turkey border is a betrayal to the Kurds and puts minorities in the area at risk of genocide.
The fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds reside in various parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Armenia, but are nonetheless stateless and often find themselves marginalized.
Days after Trump issued his order, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week launched an incursion into Syria, claiming the move would lead to the creation of a 40 kilometer-wide “safe-zone” along the entirety of the 500 kilometer border between Syria and Turkey allowing the return of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
A key ally in the U.S. offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq, Kurdish militants have widely criticized Trump’s move as a betrayal.
Both Pope Francis and Bashar Warda, Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq have spoken out about the operation, raising specific concern for Christian families and the risk of a new exodus from the region following the 2014 ISIS offensive.
During an Oct. 5 press conference in the Syrian city of Qamishlo just days before her death, Khalaf criticized Turkey, saying its attempts “to occupy this land in order to defend the Turkish people don’t adjust to reality,” since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had already liberated northeast Syria from terrorist groups.
“We – all the political forces – reject these threats, especially because they impede our campaign to create a solution for the Syrian crisis,” she said, adding that because of this, “the international community should support the people living on Syrian land to keep the security and not allow the Turkish forces to occupy Syrian land.”
Many took to social media to express their shock and sorrow at Khalaf’s death, which, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is one of at least 38 Syrian deaths since the offensive began, nine of which have been civilians.
Brett McGurk, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, issued a tweet Saturday calling Khalaf’s murder a “war crime.”
“Turkish state-backed media hails a ‘successful operation’ to ‘neutralize’ an unarmed 35-year old woman working to unite Arabs, Christians, and Kurds in NE Syria. Ms. Hevrin Khalef was reportedly dragged from a vehicle and shot to death. That’s a war crime,” he said in the tweet, sent Oct. 12.
Some religious freedom advocates have also voiced concern that Kurdish and Syrian Christians who are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces will be wiped out by Turkey, the second-biggest military power in NATO, and that a calculated process of ethnic cleansing in the region will occur.
This fear is due in part to the fact that Erdogan has pledged to relocate some 2 million Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees to the so-called “safe zone,” while displacing Christians, Yazidis and Kurds who are the native inhabitants in the region.
In an Oct. 9 letter to Trump signed by numerous advocacy groups, including some from Washington’s new International Religious Freedom Roundtable, have urged Trump not to “abandon” Christians, Yazidis and Kurds living on the Turkey-Syria border, and who are now at risk due to Turkey’s military operation along the border.
“It was deeply shocking to us as advocates for international religious freedom,” since the region has become “a rare example of success for U.S. military intervention post-911 – a showcase for religious freedom and democracy,” the letter said, adding that “It undercuts our own trust that this administration is truly committed to international religious freedom and the survival of religious minorities in the Middle East.”
Turkey’s proposed invasion plan, the letter said, includes historic Christian towns and churches in Syria, which are “all Kurdish majority towns,” as well as key administrative and educational centers.
In an interview with Italian Catholic news agency SIR, the official news site for the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, said he fears the operation will lead to “a slaughter and many innocent deaths,” like Khalaf’s.
Though Erdogan has dubbed the mission the “Operation Peace Spring,” Jeanbart argued that it is just “another source of violence we would rather have done without,” noting that area where the proposed safe-zone is located “would occupy one of the most resource-rich parts of Syria, with water, oil, gas and fertile land.”
Jeanbart criticized Turkey’s promise to relocate some 2 million Syrian refugees to the area, saying that if this happens, it would cause a “demographic earthquake, displacing Kurds from their homes and lands and creating the conditions for serious internal tensions.”
Instead of a political solution, “a military solution has been chosen,” he said, voicing hope that “dialogue can be resumed in order to find a peaceful solution, a compromise that guarantees safety for all parties involved.”
Speaking to Asia News, Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, apostolic vicar of Aleppo for the Latin Church, said the United States “has betrayed the Kurdish people” by deceiving them with the illusion of independence and then abandoning them.
He was also critical of Europe, saying “we do not trust (them). We do not believe in them. On the sixth day of fighting, they have done nothing so far.”
Voicing concern over Turkey’s operation, Khazen noted that Syria currently already has “tens of thousands” of refugees and they have heard countless cases of people being killed “according to Daesh modus operandi: executed (with) their hands tied.”
Khazen insisted that Turkey’s incursion will lead to a new exodus, forcing Christians and other minorities out.
“Jihadis operate and fight under the auspices of the Turkish army. They [the Turks] claim they want to repatriate Syrian refugees to places where other peoples and communities already live,” he said, adding that the goal “is ethnic cleansing.”
“These wars do not solve problems; on the contrary, they lay the foundations for other, bigger ones,” he said, voicing his fear that Turkey’s interference in Syria will not stop with the so-called safe zone.
“At first, Turkey spoke of a (3 mile) buffer zone in Syrian territory. Yesterday Erdogan went as far as (18-21 miles) … The more you get the more you want,” he said.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.