A BBC investigation has uncovered compelling evidence suggesting the Syrian-Kurdish political leader, Hevrin Khalaf – whose body was found in a bullet-riddled car – was executed by a faction of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army.
Rebel group Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a group that has been accused of barbarity and extrajudicial killings and which fights for the SNA, is accused of her murder, but continues to deny any involvement.
By referring to reports by Bellingcat, as well as to Hevrin Khalaf’s family, former colleagues and eyewitnesses of the event- as well as by employing open source investigation tools – the BBC have discovered a completely different story about what happened on 12 October 2019 to the one peddled by the Turkish government.
Setting off for Raqqa with her driver at around 5.30am – just three days after President Trump announced a withdrawal from the region, thus paving the way for Turkey to initiate what many have described as an ongoing ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Kurdish citizens who have long helped us keep ISIS at bay – the young, beautiful and hugely popular Secretary General of the Future Syria party headed west on the long M4 motorway for her Party’s headquarters a three hour drive away.
But Hevrin’s rising popularity among the people and the way that her message was resonating with ordinary working families, created many enemies – particularly over her public statements that the Turkish expansion into North East Syria constitutes nothing more than an illegal occupation.
Often seen travelling from Kurdish villages to Syrian towns, Hevrin’s warm smile and messages of hope, unity. and the fight for gender equality would draw huge crowds – in two countries whose people have long been submerged in the stomach of a political maelstrom peppered with brutal power struggles and extremist regimes.
With the climate of chaos and uncertainty at threat by politicians possessing more peaceful ideologies, the many war lords and power-hungry political groups in the region have frequently shown that they will protect the status quo by any means.
Eyewitnesses say that early that morning a military convoy was seen crossing the Turkish border into Syria.
A short while later, along the dusty M4, Khalaf’s car was ambushed and the extensively bullet-riddled vehicle was later found, still smoldering, by the side of the sand-crowned motorway close to a checkpoint.
From immediate inspection it was clear that the weapons used were military grade. This was no amateur act of revenge. Either Hevrin had been a victim of anti-Kurdish brutality, or someone powerful had wanted Khalaf silenced.
According to her autopsy report, after being taken out of her car, Hevrin Khalaf had been barbarically beaten over the head and left leg with a solid object, leading to multiple bone fractures. Sharp objects – possibly knives – were then used on the back of her legs as she struggled to escape. Severely injured and in great pain, Hevrîn was then dragged by her hair – with chunks of her hair still attached to flesh found at the murder site – before being shot in the head once and then four more times in her chest.
When a video of the car showing a lifeless body believed to be Khalaf’s driver being dragged from a blood-stained seat emerged, the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya (a faction of the Syrian National Army) was immediately blamed by an enraged public and by numerous local politicians. In the video, a soldier can also clearly be heard proudly declaring ‘another runaway pig executed by the Syrian National Army’.
Yet the accusations – as with the woman they related to – were to share the same fate of gradual censorship and deaf ears.
There was no evidence to prove that Turkey, let alone the SNA, was involved. ‘Move along’ came the usual state-issued line. Nothing to see here.
Yet the BBC’s investigation has now revealed that the ominous military convoy rolling into Syria that day did indeed belong to the SNA – a group consisting of 70,000 soldiers that was founded by Turkey only recently, in early 2019. In particular, it belonged to Ahrar al-Sharqiya.
Crossing the border, the convoy headed straight down the M4, and directly towards Hevrin Khalaf.
Further footage unearthed by the BBC shows fighters from the group filming their excursion into Syria in a convoy that morning – the time being easily ascertained by the sun, which has only just risen.
In the clip, the SNA soldier filming on what is presumably his mobile phone, records fellow armed colleagues leaving their vehicles and seemingly spreading out across the road.
‘First moments of arrival of mujahideen of Ahrar al-Sharqiya’ the soldier tells the camera. ‘Hasaka to Mabij motorway’
Other videos shared on the encrypted messaging app Telegram show Ahrar al-Sharqiya committing grave crimes against humanity – including executing people on a road at a check point on the same day as Khalaf’s murder while yelling chants of ‘Allahu akbar’.
The BBC were able to use satellite images to confirm that the Telegram videos had been filmed at the Tirwaziya checkpoint on the M4 – proving that the SNA were actively killing innocent people at the same checkpoint that Khalaf was travelling towards, and were actively doing so on the same day.
The SNA have since been condemned by many for allegedly using the fight against ISIS in Syria as a smokescreen for the mass murder of neighboring Kurds.
Trained and armed by Turkey, the numerous questionable factions of the SNA are then sent to the border to join the offensive against the Kurdish people, with whom they have been feuding for decades.
An eye witness told the BBC that as Khalaf’s vehicle approached the Tirwaziya checkpoint “Her car was shot at, blowing out its tyres”.
The BBC gelocated the exact spot where Hevrin’s vehicle had been at the time of her execution and proved that the vehicle had swerved away from the checkpoint, presumably under fire as per the eyewitnesses statement.
The 35 year-old’s autopsy report also records that, after being shot in the head, Hevrin was then shot ‘not from close range’ and sustained multiple gun shot wounds to her chest as a result. This is consistent with other killings filmed on the same day carried out by the Turkey-backed militia roup.
Other videos that conflict with Turkey’s clearly misleading narrative have been circulated on social media. In one of them, a body that is suspected by most to be that of Hevrîn’s is shown with a Turkish-backed soldier standing over her. The soldiers then taps her with his feet and says “this is the corpse of pigs.” Some however have since disputed that the body shown in the separate footage is that of Hevrin.
At the time of the killing, The Daily Telegraph reported that “Kurdish officials said rebel fighters intercepted a car carrying Hevrin Khalaf”, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that “nine civilians were executed at different moments south of the town of Tal Abyad” – in what others have described as a ‘mafia-style’ hit on several political targets.
Hevrin’s funeral was attended by thousands, as people each side of the bitter border mourned the loss of Havrin.
Upon viewing her body, Hevrin’s mother said that “I moved a cloth that covered her chest and face and found nothing left of her body but a small piece from her jaw.”
If the conclusion of the BBC’s investigation (heavily based on an earlier investigation by Bellingcat) is to be accepted – along with the mound of evidence stacked to support their claims, then the SNA murdered Khalaf – as well as other innocents – and Turkish President Erdogan – who is currently responsible for the mass censorship of the media and accused of brutal treatment and even murder of journalists and civilians – has serious questions to answer.
So far however, Turkey has failed to respond to the newly found evidence and reinforced allegations. As with the horrific execution of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Turkish embassy in Istanbul in October 2018 the Government continues to deny any direct involvement.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya have since released a statement claiming that their soldiers shot at a vehicle on the morning of Khalaf’s murder but that they ‘do not know’ how Khalaf died.
The BBC however have now enhanced the video clip showing the SNA faction at the bullet-riddled car of Khalaf. Eerily, as soldiers can be see standing around and indeed on the body of the driver, from within the smoldering vehicle can be heard a solitary female voice – a voice that the BBC, by showing the footage to Khalef’s mother, has now been confirmed to be that of Hevrin herself.
This video – as well as chillingly capturing the final moments of Khalaf before her death – proves that the Turkey-sent soldiers who killed the innocent politician first shot her car off the road, approached it, and then – despite Hevrin still being alive in the vehicle – filmed the scene before finishing her off with blunt strikes and stabs, and finally bullets to her head and chest.
Will the international world unite in condemnation and demands for further inquiries? Will Turkey and the SNA be brought just justice for horrific crimes against humanity? If recent attitudes and events are anything to go by, sadly, the prospect appears to be unlikely.