These are crucial moments for the women and men fighting the self-described Islamic State on the Syrian battlefields. In the past few days, troops pushing against ISIS have achieved significant victories, and more successes appear within reach. But the warriors paused this week to say a solemn, tearful goodbye to one of their most beloved commanders, the man known as Abu Layla.
The depth of feeling for Abu Layla matters not only because it reminds us of the harsh reality of what is happening in that battlefield and the individual lives lost in this dismal chapter of Middle East history. It also matters because it tells us something important about the ideas and values of some of the people engaged in the conflict.
One often hears that in the Syrian war, there are no good guys — that the choice is between autocrats and terrorists, between maniacs of different stripes. But a look at the life and death of Abu Layla puts the lie to that misleading version of what is happening in Syria.
Abu Layla, a Syrian Kurd, was a man committed to building a democratic, secular, multiethnic Syria. A commander of extraordinary charisma, revered by his followers, he was determined to preserve in his troops the sense of humanity that is so easily lost during a time of war, particularly a war as vicious as this one.
Born Faisal Sadoun, a Kurd from the ethnically-mixed Syrian town of Manbij, Abu Layla was hit by ISIS sniper fire on June 3 as he led his forces in a campaign to retake his strategically vital hometown. American forces, which are supporting the operations of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), evacuated Abu Layla for medical care, but he died two days later.
His death was a body blow for his comrades and residents of those cities he had helped liberate. He wasn’t only a major military commander, but also an inspirational figure, and an advocate of views that, if successfully implemented, could turn Syria from the world’s epicenter of despair and extremism to a focus of tolerance and coexistence in the region.
At the time of his death, Abu Layla was a leading commander in the SDF, made up mostly of Kurds and their muscular People Protection Forces or YPG, along with Arabs, Turkmen and other ethnic groups. He was uniquely suited to the task. His hometown was Manbij, where people of multiple backgrounds and tribes had lived in peace. Today, capturing Manbij is key to pushing back ISIS as it provides a crucial supply line to Raqqa, the ISIS capital.
The name Layla took, the one everyone knew him by, means “Father of Layla.” It is common in the region for men to become better known by a nickname, “father of”, than by the name of their birth. But almost every one of those nicknames contains the eldest son’s name. Abu Layla took pride in his daughter Leyla. Taking the name was a very deliberate political message, according to Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst I spoke with — a way to underscore his commitment to equality for women.
After he died, the internet exploded with remembrances. His trademark, ever-present smile adorned a multitude of tributes. There was the letter that one journalist shared allegedly left behind by Abu Layla and addressed to Leyla, explaining that the fight for “the full freedom of our beloved country, Syria,” was “for your future and the future of children like you.”
Those who knew him offered countless revealing snippets of his life. There was a video of the late commander, reportedly his last before dying, in which he addressed his fighters ahead of the Manjib battle, telling them that they must refrain from looting, from searching people’s bedrooms, and that they must respect women’s honor.
In another clip, dating back to the battle for the city of Kobani in late 2014, he appears to help dig out an ISIS fighter buried in rubble, “We’re going to get him out of here and send him to his family,” he says, highlighting the stark moral contrast between ISIS and his forces. After Kobani was liberated, he proclaimed that he was not fighting for any one group — Kurds, Arabs, Muslims or Christians. “I’m fighting for a free democratic Syria,” he said, “not an Islamic Syria, but a free democratic Syria.”
In Kobani, as in Manjib, he fought side by side with Kurdish female soldiers at the vanguard of the war against ISIS.
Abu Layla was undoubtedly a unique figure and, as such, his death inflicts a costly loss on his people and their cause. But the always optimistic leader would have taken great comfort in what happened after he died.
The proof that his message of determination and tolerance lives on was inescapable in the way the region reacted to his death.
The streets of Kobani, the city he helped liberate, looked deserted on the day of his funeral. Everyone, it seemed, had gone to honor Abu Layla. One Kurdish outlet reported that tens of thousands of people joined the procession.
Videos from the funeral show hardened warriors crying. Then, the men and women in uniform stand in formation for the ceremony, then raise their hand in a V salute, a sign of their commitment to victory, I am told, and to fulfilling Abu Layla’s mission to ensure his death was not in vain.
The Military Council announced that the SDF battle to liberate their fallen commander’s hometown is reportedly now officially called “Operation Martyr and Commander Faysal Abu Layla.”
In the past few hours, SDF forces, Kurds, Arabs and others, have tightened their grip on Manbij and stand poised to move in. Abu Layla would have smiled at the news.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.