The Young Feminist Who Died for My People

A vigil honoring Anna Campbell in her hometown, Lewes, East Sussex, England. Ms. Campbell died fighting with a Kurdish armed unit in Syria. Credit Gareth Fuller/Press Association Images, via Getty Images
A vigil honoring Anna Campbell in her hometown, Lewes, East Sussex, England. Ms. Campbell died fighting with a Kurdish armed unit in Syria. Credit Gareth Fuller/Press Association Images, via Getty Images

A few days before Anna Campbell was killed in Syria by a Turkish missile on March 15, she called my office in Raqqa. Anna, a 26-year-old British feminist who had come to my country in May 2017 to fight alongside Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, was begging to go to Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled city that Turkish forces were on the verge of seizing after a brutal two-month offensive.

Her military commanders in the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units — the all-female army known as the Y.P.J. — were not allowing her to go, arguing that a Western woman would be a particular target for Turkey and the radical jihadist groups it is backing. But Anna was insistent.

“My government and the Western world left you alone to face the second largest army in NATO,” she said. “I won’t abandon you.”

“We need you here,” I told her. “We need you to get our story out to the British media.”

“My country gave you nothing but words,” she replied. “I want to give you action.”

Anna’s bravery astonished me. Here was a smart young woman born into freedom and comfort in southern England. But she could not bear to stand by as President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Turkey and the Islamic State tried to stamp out my people and our democratic vision. As her father, Dirk Campbell, put it in an interview with The New York Times: “She was somebody who saw the injustices of the world and the plight of the weak and vulnerable and disempowered, and she also saw the idealism, the amazing utopian vision of Rojava, and she found those two elements irresistible.”

When we, the Syrian Democratic Council, an assembly of multiethnic groups that serves as the political leadership for the Syrian Democratic Forces, started to work with the United States Department of Defense in the city of Kobane in 2014, many people discouraged us. The United States does not have friends, they argued. It has only interests.

But Anna and others like her have shown me that isn’t true — at least for some brave individuals in the West who cherish the values we Syrian democrats stand for: the protection of individual and religious freedoms, the rights of women and our particular vision of democracy, which empowers local and state governments rather than concentrating all authority in a distant capital.

Anna was one of many Western volunteers who have fought alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces over the past three years — at first against the Islamic State and, more recently, against Turkish aggression in Afrin.

For a time it seemed that the United States, too, was on our side. American officials spoke of diplomatic recognition of Syrian democrats, serious investment in reconstruction and training the 30,000 Syrian democratic soldiers so that they could serve as a professional security force.

Such promises were greeted with hope and joy in places like Afrin, Manbej and Qamishli.

A strong American-Syrian relationship meant that Syria would no longer be a rogue state, or turn into the failed state that it threatened to become, but a state that would have productive relationships with the United States, Europe, Arab countries and even Turkey.

But these dreams of a new Syria were transformed into a nightmare by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-jihadist policies.

Rather than working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey is attacking us. Rather than celebrating the defeat of the Islamic State with us, Turkey is killing the same soldiers who secured its Syrian border against the Islamic State. Rather than keeping us focused on protecting our oil fields from falling into Russian hands, Turkey is distracting us and forcing our troops to be dispatched to Afrin.

Why is Turkey doing this? Because it insists that Syrian Kurds are an offshoot of the P.K.K., a Kurdish party in Turkey that is engaged in a war for more Kurdish rights. While many Kurdish leaders, including me, have stated many times that we and the P.K.K. are different organizations, with different leadership, Turkey refuses to believe us. They also refuse to believe the United States, which has said the same.

Although the Islamic State poses a threat to everyone in the free world, including the United States, the Syrian Democratic Forces never asked the United States to fight our war. Our young women and men have gone bravely to the front lines to fight this genocidal group. We have built our own defense units, our own political institutions and governing bodies to establish pockets of freedom and democracy in a country being torn apart.

It’s not a coincidence that the cities and neighborhoods that we govern are the only places in Syria where American soldiers can walk safely and shake hands with people without fear of being stabbed in the back.

We are not calling on the United States to end its relationship with Turkey. But we are asking the United States and the West to stop abetting our deaths. Is the United States going to stand by as the same soldiers who protected the American soldiers in Raqqa are being burned by Turkey’s military and their mercenary jihadist groups? Is the United States going to keep watching its political allies being slaughtered in front of their own eyes? Just consider the fact that Anna Campbell was a British citizen killed by another member of NATO.

Despite scarcity, we do not want bullets, we do not want food, and we do not want money. All we are asking for is action that will stop Turkey from flying its warplanes over the heads of our children.

Two weeks ago, I was able to smuggle myself from eastern Syria to Afrin, where I spent a week. The people of Afrin understand the complexity of United States-Turkey relations, but they kept asking the same question: “You assured us that history is not going to repeat itself. But look at the American-made Turkish jets. Are not they the same jets that provided us with air cover when we liberated Al Raqqa, Manbij, Kobane and the oil fields in Deir Al Zor? Why are they now being used to kill our children and destroy our homes?”

I didn’t know how to respond.

Ilham Ahmed is a co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council.

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