Cracking one of the last details of the 2019 murder of Hevrin Khalaf on Syria's M4 highway
On October 12, 2019, Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf and her driver were fatally shot on Syria’s M4 highway by fighters from Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a subgroup of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army. Khalaf, Secretary General of the Future Syria party, was a vehement opponent of the Turkish intervention in northern Syria and a supporter of women’s rights, liberalism, civil society groups, and the dignity of Arab and Kurdish citizens alike.
The trail of digital breadcrumbs left in the wake of her murder - pictures of the scene, voice recordings, social media posts, and so on - have been covered extensively by the BBC, Bellingcat, Amnesty International, Syrians for Truth and Justice, and others.
These groups compiled a nearly comprehensive account of the day of the murder. They confirm how Ahrar al-Sharqiya staged across the border in Turkey on October 11, crossed into Syria at or before dawn on October 12, and then drove south to the M4 Highway where they established a checkpoint. At the checkpoint, they captured a few prisoners, one of whom was extrajudicially executed, before intercepting Hevrin Khalaf’s vehicle and killing her and her driver.
Yet there was one question that remained unresolved: what exactly happened to the surviving prisoners captured just before Khalaf’s murder?
This question, while not the most consequential of those raised on the day of the killing, is nonetheless significant. No later than an hour after the murder, the two prisoners were pictured with Abu Hatem and Abu Ja’far - two Ahrar al-Sharqiya commanders - and a unit of their fighters:
If these pictures were taken at the site of the murder, it would strongly imply that the group’s leadership ordered or at least condoned Khalaf’s killing at the same location.
However, geolocation now confirms that these images were not taken at the site of the murders on the M4 highway. Instead, they were taken at a compound next to where the group first entered Syrian territory at dawn on October 12.
A Matter of Geolocation
Of the two pictures posted by Ahrar al-Sharqiya depicting the two prisoners taken at the M4 highway, the picture with the hamlet and cell phone tower in the background proved to be the key to unlocking the location of the prisoners:
In addition to the visual features of the photo, I made a few assumptions about its possible location. First, I figured it was probably near a highway or main road - it wouldn’t make sense to have a village and a cell phone tower, which likely requires repairs and maintenance, without a road nearby. Next, as Alexander McKeever points out, based on the length and direction of the shadows, the image was posted to Twitter at 8:03am (i.e. it was taken no later than that time) with the camera facing southwest.
Besides those assumptions, the image provides some distinctive visual features we can match to those seen on satellite imagery. Let’s zoom in on that hamlet in the upper right.
As it turns out, there’s a small village called al-Khuwayra al-Saghira, just off the 712 highway near the Syrian border with Turkey, that precisely matches these characteristics.
Zooming out, we can establish exactly where the image was taken.
In the hours and days to follow, the prisoners appeared in a few other pictures with Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters. While these are more difficult to geolocate, they too may have been taken at the compound near the Syria-Turkey border. For instance, this proof of life video may have been taken inside one of the buildings at the site:
And the picture below may have been taken in the compound's courtyard:
Either way, it appears Ahrar al-Sharqiya was proud of their prisoners and seized every opportunity to show them off.
Finishing the Story
Now that the location of the prisoners has been nailed down, a few more pieces of the October 12 murder fall into place. For one, it confirms that Ahrar al-Sharqiya leader Abu Hatem was not pictured at the site of Hevrin Khalaf’s murder (or if he was, those pictures have not yet emerged). Whether he was ever at the scene of the crime remains an open question - one for which we’d need additional evidence to emerge in order to answer definitively.
It also allows us to fill in the course of events of October 12 in a more complete fashion. Specifically, it shows that after killing Khalaf and leaving the checkpoint on the M4 highway, the group’s fighters dropped their prisoners off at the compound near the border before returning south, where they were pictured later in the day at al-Zaidi village:
We know the soldiers in the village are from the same unit of Ahrar al-Sharqiya as the kidnappers because the fighter second from right in the image above was also pictured with the prisoners earlier in the day:
Putting all that together, here is a complete map of the fighters’ activities on October 11 and 12, 2019.
What happened to the prisoners after they were pictured in the hands of Ahrar al-Sharqiya remains unknown. They were seen weeks later inside an Ahrar al-Sharqiya prison in a blurred image released by the group - after that, their trail turns cold. However, reports have emerged of Turkey transferring people captured in military operations in Syria across the border to prisons in Turkey. These prisoners - accused by Turkey of terrorism - are subject to maltreatment and torture (not to mention extraordinary rendition) in evident violation of international law.
Unfortunately, this murder and kidnapping were just a small part of the war crimes and civilian casualties visited upon the residents of northern Syria during the Turkish invasion of the region in late 2019. Though Abu Hatem may not have been pictured at the site of the execution of Hevrin Khalaf and her driver, his group’s culpability in the fighting, displacements, and atrocities of the operation is clear.
Despite the name, the Syrian National Army is a rebel group, not the army of the government of Syria.