I Saw the Birth, and Bloody Death, of the Dream of Syrian Democracy
The Syrian revolution was started by patriots—and ended by international jihadis supported by the United States.
When I first met Hevrin Khalaf in 2017, she astonished me with her intelligence. Khalaf was a Kurdish civil engineer from Derik who became one of the most prominent female leaders in the autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria. During our first meeting in Ain Issa, she thanked me for risking my life to cross into Rojava while I was wanted by four different Syrian intelligence agencies for my activities in support of the Syrian revolution. I ended up living in the same compound with her for 45 days.
She would wake up at 5 in the morning and would not stop working until midnight, whether that involved traveling to the Deir Ezzor region, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State, to tutor children and teenagers there in math, or meeting with Arab tribal leaders and helping resolve their many disputes in her role as the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party (FSP). She personified the way the FSP and the Syrian Democratic Council approached the many differences among the people of the region.
On Oct. 12, my friend was brutally murdered by a group of assassins working under the order of the so-called Syrian National Army. They attacked Khalaf’s car, tortured her, beat her with blunt objects, broke her legs, dragged her by her hair until it was ripped from her scalp, and then shot her body and face until she was mutilated beyond recognition even to her mother.
Khalaf’s murder reflects the evil that has gripped Syria since the civil war began in 2011 and marks the death of the Syrian revolution at the hands of jihadis. At the start of the revolution, Syrians opposing President Bashar al-Assad were widely represented by liberal Syrian diaspora groups. But ultimately the liberal opposition failed to compete with Syrian Islamists, especially the local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood—not least because of the support of the U.S. government. Syrian jihadis established close relationships with the U.S. State Department; many U.S. government agencies seemed to prefer working with the Islamists over our group of secular, liberal dissidents.
The result is what we see today: the stark dominance of groups that rely on primordial Sunni imperial aspirations—groups like al Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham. The young men and women who marched peacefully in Damascus in March 2011 calling for democratic change have thus seen their revolution hijacked by criminal jihadis like the ones who killed Khalaf. Since Turkey’s Oct. 9 invasion, these jihadis have occupied two major border towns, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, killing hundreds of Syrians and forcing the Syrian Democratic Forces to surrender areas to Assad.
The United States is not blameless. I saw with my own eyes how it supported international Islamist jihadis in Syria with guns and money. I saw how the United States intervened to stop a Russian incursion against Idlib and against the largest al Qaeda affiliate in the world. I saw how the United States worked hard to represent the Syrian Islamists in the Geneva peace talks on Syria while excluding the Kurds at the behest of Turkey. I saw when U.S. President Donald Trump stood by doing nothing against Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin and now the rest of multicultural northeastern Syria.
This is not the way I thought it would go when I risked my life to protest Assad’s reign. In 2006, I was one of the few young anti-Assad activists. I co-founded a student organization that worked on challenging Assad by visually documenting his crimes. I used to stand in front of the supreme court in Damascus and secretly film the political prisoners when the Syrian secret police would move them from the police vans to the courthouse. I became a political prisoner. I was jailed and tortured for more than a month and then exiled from Syria forever.
By the time I met Khalaf, I was a U.S. citizen who had met many world leaders. I was among the six Syrian dissident leaders who met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August 2011, when the administration officially called on Assad to step down and started to acknowledge us as a legitimate Syrian party.
There was just one problem: This acknowledgment came without any substantive independent commitment to regime change in Syria. The United States preferred to work with locally established actors—which meant working with local jihadis who rejected democratic values. Although the State Department tried to help Syrian rebels form an inclusive governing system, the $500 million U.S. train-and-equip program furthered the ambitions of al Qaeda and its allies. Meanwhile, Turkey became a transit hub for international jihadis entering Syria. Syrian liberals became marginalized in international politics, just as the Syrian Kurds’ participation in diplomacy was vetoed by Turkey
This is why Khalaf thought I was putting my life at risk by being in Syria. I told her, “No, Hevrin. Assad hates you more than me. You are the one who can prove to the world that the Syrian revolution is not a swamp of radical Islamic groups.” I was very concerned that Assad would have her killed, but she always reassured me that a woman with her calm and musical voice could subdue any would-be murderer.
A month ago, she was given an armored SUV from the U.S.-led coalition, as there were concerns about her safety after the Turkish threats. Ironically, she was not attacked by Assad’s forces—she was killed by the supposedly anti-Assad Syrian rebels for whom she and I once advocated. Now, it seems obvious to the entire world that they are little more than mercenaries for Turkey, bandits, and sadists.
The killing of Khalaf is a turning point in Syria’s modern history. It once again demonstrated the old Kurdish proverb “no friends but the mountains.” I will always be a friend of Khalaf and her vision of a better world. But that vision seems unlikely to arrive in Syria anytime soon.