Posts filed under 'Syria'

2019: Hervin Khalaf, Rojava politician

1 comment October 12th, 2020 Headsman

One year ago today, Rojava political figure Hervin Khalaf was killed by summary execution.

A Syrian Kurd whose family counts several martyrs to that people’s long struggle for self-determination, Khalaf (English Wikipedia entry | French was a civil engineer in Al-Malikiyah at the tip of Syria’s furthest-northeast salient wedged between Turkey and Iraq. It’s a heavily multiethnic part of the country; the Assyrian singer Faia Younan hails from the same town.

Amid the ongoing civil war that has fractured the map of Syria, Al-Malikiyah has since 2012 been part of Rojava, a de facto (albeit legally unrecognized) independent heavily-Kurdish polity that has unfolded an appealing secular social revolution featuring women’s rights and democratic devolution. Khalaf personified that vision, fired by the future she was making with her own hands; in an obituary, a friend recalled her rising at 5 in the morning and working until midnight, everything from diplomatic wrangling to teaching mathematics to children. She became the secretary-general of the liberal Future Syria Party.

Rojava has been menaced on all sides throughout its brief existence: initially by the Syrian army, which eventually withdrew amicably to allow both parties to focus on other threats; by the Islamic State; and — of moment to this post — by neighboring Turkey.

Turkey’s long-running conflict with its own Kurdish populace just across the border was of course a concern for Rojava and the Kurdish militias that supported it. When the United States withdrew its forces from northeast Syria in 2019, it laid Rojava open to Turkish invasion — which occurred on October 9, 2019. Days into that attack, an allied local militia of Sunni extremists stopped Khalaf’s armored SUV at a roadside checkpoint and summarily executed both she and her driver, Farhad Ahmed. The murder drew worldwide outrage.

While Rojava’s prospects seemed grim indeed in these days, Russia — stepping into the void as the Kurds’ great power patron — brokered a deal with Turkey that has prevented the region being overrun entirely.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Execution,History,Kurdistan,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Syria,Turkey,Wartime Executions,Women

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2014: Steven Sotloff, two lives

Add comment September 2nd, 2020 Headsman

On or just before this date in 2014, American journalist Steven Sotloff was beheaded by his Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh) captors.

A “standup philosopher from Miami” as he self-described, Sotloff was four months past his 18th birthday when the planes struck the towers. The grave that the American empire dug for itself thereafter had an annex sized for Steven Sotloff, too.

After post-graduate studies in Israel Sotloff reported from around the Middle East, notably filing some early stories from the 2012 attack on U.S. agents in Benghazi in a Libya consumed by chaos after NATO deposed Muammar Gaddafi.

On August 4, 2013, Sotloff was kidnapped entering Syria from Turkey. Actually, contrary to this post’s lead paragraph, ISIS wasn’t his captor — just the entity that received him from the Northern Storm Brigade, a US- and Turkish-backed rebel militia that bankrolled itself through smuggling and kidnapping.

“The so-called moderate rebels that people want our [the Obama] administration to support, one of them sold him for something between $25,000 and $50,000, and that was the reason he was captured,” a Sotloff family friend announced — voicing the taboo open secret of the violent Sunni extremists at the heart of the anti-Assad Syrian rebellion.

The journalist now became a chit in the nightmare economy of hostages and spectacle murder. When fellow American kidnap victim James Foley was beheaded in August 2014 in retaliation for American attacks on Da’esh in Iraq, the video of his execution warned that Sotloff would be next. As attacks on ISIS’s Iraqi positions did not abate, he was.

Days after Sotloff’s slaying was released to the world’s digital snuff film archives, the U.S. for the first time escalated its interventions in Syria to overt air strikes on ISIS’s in that country.

As Mark Ames summed up the dog’s breakfast, “here you have this CIA-backed and -trained militia group that kidnaps civilians, photographs with John McCain, allies with ISIS, kidnaps an American, sells him to ISIS, he winds up getting killed, and that winds up triggering American intervention into Syria.”

There’s a Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial 2LIVES Foundation that works in his memory, its name drawn from an elegant line in a letter Sotloff managed to have smuggled out of captivity: “Everyone has two lives; the 2nd one begins when you realize you have only one.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Hostages,ISIS/ISIL,Jews,No Formal Charge,Ripped from the Headlines,Syria,USA,Wartime Executions

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2015: Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra archaeologist

Add comment August 18th, 2020 Headsman

Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by the Islamic State on this date in 2015 for refusing them the ancient artifacts of his native Palmyra.

Eighty-two years old — Palmyra was still a French colony at the time of this birth — Al-Asaad was involved in excavations around that city throughout his adult life. He became the custodian of the archaeological site in 1963 and held the post for 40 years.

When the Salafist militant army rolled up on his oasis city that spring.* he helped to evacuate the town’s museum and Daesh put him to torture to extract the whereabouts of the priceless cultural treasures he’d concealed from them. He made himself a hero to Syrians and antiquarians alike by denying his captors any satisfaction save his death — which was accomplished by a public beheading.

At least one other scholar, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of DGAM Laboratories, was also killed by ISIS/ISIL for protecting the dig site.

after Khaled al-Asaad

bonepole bonepole since you died
there’s been dying everywhere
do you see it slivered where you are
between a crown and a tongue     the question still
more god or less     I am all tangled
in the smoke you left     the swampy herbs
the paper crows     horror leans in and brings
its own light     this life so often inadequately
lit     your skin peels away     your bones soften
your rich unbecoming     a kind of apology

when you were alive your cheekbones
dropped shadows across your jaw     I saw a picture
I want to dive into that darkness     smell
the rosewater     the sand     irreplaceable
jewel how much of the map did you leave
unfinished     there were so many spiders
your mouth a moonless system
of caves filling with dust
the dust thickened to tar
your mouth opened and tar spilled out

“Palmyra”, by Kaveh Akbar

* The modern city of Palmyra (also called Tadmur) is adjacent to but not synonymous with the ancient city/archaeological site of Palmyra.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Caliphate,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Intellectuals,ISIS/ISIL,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Syria,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1915: Cerkez Ahmed, disposable fanatic

Add comment September 30th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1915, Ottoman major Cerkez Ahmed (often Ahmet) hanged in Damascus.

The officer had been an important figure months earlier in the opening campaigns of Armenian genocide in the eastern province of Van where he operated as a paramilitary chief that verged so close to a brigand that he was eventually treated as one. Most egregiously, when two reformist Armenian parliamentarians named Vartkes Seringulian and Krikor Zohrab were arrested and deported to Syria, it was Ahmed who ambushed and murdered them.* (He was also the assassin in the prewar years of opposition journalist Ahmed Samim, but he’d long since been amnestied for that horror.)

Although in this he was enacting the state’s own policy, his proclivity for gorging himself on the valuables of his victims provided an impetus — a pretext, really — to eliminate him. The official communiques between officials determining his fate (and that of an associate) paint a grim and cynical picture. The following quotes can be found piecemeal in a number of sources, but they’re marshaled comprehensively in the open source volume Documentation of the Armenian Genocide in Turkish Sources under the heading “The Case of a Special Organization Major”.

The brigands Halil and Ahmed visited me today. They stated that having completed the massacres in the Diyarbekir area, they came to Syria to do the same for which purpose they said they are ready to receive the orders. I have them arrested. Awaiting your excellency’s orders.

-Telegram from the governor of Aleppo to Cemal Pasha, one of the “Three Pashas” who ran Turkey as a triumvirate


I feel dishonored. I served my country. I desolated Van and environs. Today, you car’t find a single Armenian there … I killed off the Armenian Deputies Zohrab and Vartkes. I grabbed Zohrab, threw him down, took him under my feet and with a big rock crushed his head — crushed and crushed until I killed him off.

-Ahmed, complaining to the intelligence officer Ahmed Refik (according to the latter’s postwar account)


In as much as I am convinced that Cerkez Ahmed committed these crimes by the order of Diyarbekir governor Reshid,** do you still find the liquidation of Ahmed absolutely necessary? Or, should I be merely content with Halil? Kindly respond by tomorrow evening.

-Cemal to fellow triumvir Talaat Pasha


His liquidation in any case is necessary. Otherwise he will prove very harmful at a later date. Talat.

-Talat’s reply to Cemal (on September 15/28, 1915)


The verdict against Cerkez Ahmed is execution. The requisite step will be taken in Damascus tomorrow morning.

-Cemal’s order (on September 16/29)

And he was.

“Undoubtedly Cerkez Ahmed was a scoundrel who deserved to be hanged not once but nine times,” mused the historian Ziya Sakir — who published these ciphered messages in 1943. “With three words uttered by administrative chief Talaat, the life of this creature, who was exploited for the sake of fanatic partisanship, was snuffed out.”

Many years later, Cemal Pasha’s chief of staff Gen. Ali Fuad Erden would reflect on this affair in his memoirs,

Indebtedness to given executioners and murderers is bound to be heavy … those who are used for dirty jobs are needed in times of necessity [in order to shift] responsibility. It is likewise necessary, however, not to exalt but to dispose of them like toilet paper, once they have done their job.

* Reshid Akif Reshid, an Ottoman senator and briefly a state councilor during World War I, provided noteworthy testimony to the postwar Ottoman parliament about the Armenian genocide, detailing the systematic use of extralegal “brigand” paramilitaries in conducting the slaughter: official orders from Istanbul to a provincial official ordered various Armenian communities “deported”; simultaneously, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress “undertook to send an ominous circular order to all points [in the provinces], urging the expediting of the execution of the accursed mission of the brigands. Thereupon, the brigands proceeded to act and the atrocious massacres were the result.”

** The governor referred to here is Mehmed Reshid, one of the genocide’s most enthusiastic agents and “the butcher of Diyarbakir” in Armenian memory. He was arrested after the war and might have been a candidate for this very blog but escaped the prospect of hanging by breaking out of prison and committing suicide when on the verge of recapture.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Murder,Ottoman Empire,Outlaws,Soldiers,Syria,Theft,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1169: Shawar, Saladin forerunner

Add comment January 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1169, the vizier of Egypt, name of Shawar, was put to summary death as war collapsed the Fatimid Caliphate … a death required to prepare the way for a much more august successor.

A Shia dynasty that had once stretched across North Africa and the Levant, the Fatimids by the 1160s controlled only Egypt but they did not control it decisively, as neighboring powers could readily discern.

Shawar, vizier since 1162, was the effective ruler of the empire but he’d been chased to exile in Damascus by an internal rival. Nothing daunted, Shawar successfully appealed to the Turkish governor of that city, Nur al-Din, to restore him.

A Kurdish general named Shirkuh led this successful intervention, which is notable as the entry onto history’s battlefields of Shirkuh’s nephew — the mighty Saladin.

While Shawar profited from Shirkuh and Saladin’s intervention, he had no desire for them to stay — while of course staying was the whole reason that Nur al-Din had sent them to intervene. Egypt slid into a three-way war when the Frankish Crusader King Amalric of Jerusalem invaded to check the influence of Shawar’s overstaying benefactors. Miraculously, Shawar came out of this unscathed when the rival powers fought to a stalemate and departed Egypt under truce.

Alliances shift like the sands hereabouts; by 1168 it was the Franks attacking, and overwhelming, the Egyptians, forcing a desperate Shawar to torch his own capital, Fustat. Replaying the same script from 1163 with the roles reversed, Shirkuh and Saladin were soon sent to counter the Crusaders, which their very presence accomplished: Amalric withdrew as soon as they arrived.

And this, at last, left Egypt in Shirkuh’s hands and the nimble Shawar exposed to his fate. The Fatimid caliph was induced on January 18 to consent to Shawar’s immediate execution.

Shawar’s passion also signaled the imminent death of the Fatimid Caliphate. The vizier’s post was filled subsequently by Shirkuh himself … and when Shirkuh died two months later, by Saladin.

Egypt thereafter would prove the launching-point for a scintillating career: Saladin reorganized the unstable polity and by 1171 disbanded the Fatimid state, founding in its place the Ayyubid Dynasty.* From this base of power, Saladin took over Syria when his former patron (by then rival) Nur al-Din passed away in 1174, and proceeded thence to become the preeminent conqueror of his day.

* Named for Saladin’s father.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Borderline "Executions",Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,Syria,Wartime Executions

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2015: A man in al-Shaddadah, “I won’t forgive you”

Add comment January 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2015, Islamic State militants occupying the Syrian oil city of al-Shaddadah or al-Shaddadi horrifically beheaded a man on a public square.

Just what action was compassed in his alleged offense of “insulting Allah” is not known; neither so far as I can find was his name. But he fought his killers furiously, and four men were required to wrestle him into the dust and immobilize him for the executioner’s sword. “I won’t forgive you, I am not the one who did it but you did Arabs and civilians of al-Shadadi,” he cried out to townspeople unwilling or unable to lift a finger on his behalf against the butchers.

Al-Shaddadah was recaptured from ISIS in February 2016.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,ISIS/ISIL,Known But To God,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Syria

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1629: Giorgi Saakadze

Add comment October 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Larger-than-life Georgian warrior Giorgi Saakadze was put to death in Aleppo on this date in 1629.

Through friendship with the royal family and talent on the battlefield, (English Wikipedia entry | Georgian), Saakadze had risen from the petty nobility to become one of the leading figures in the Kingdom of Kartli (centered on the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s present-day capital). He even married his sister to the king himself.

Kartli was a minor principality under the sway of the adjacent Persian Safavids but that doesn’t mean they were thrilled about the idea. Saakadze would embark on a treacherous (in both senses) career when he was accused by rival Georgian lords of Persian subterfuge, and had to flee to Persia to a chorus of told-you-sos.

In this Benedict Arnold posture, Saakadze would then help direct the campaign that pacified Georgia for the Persians, and deposed the Georgian king.* Through Persian arms he became the de facto ruler of his prostrated homeland, and you’d be forgiven for wondering how that sort of behavior has earned him a monumental equestrian statue dominating a Tbilisi city square named to his honor.

Well, Saakadze redeemed his reputation and then some by turning coat on a massive Persian invasion dispatched to put down another Georgian rebellion in the 1620s, crippling the operation while the former satrap turned guerrilla. Savvy empires know how to play the divide-and-conquer game, however, and before you knew it they had rival Georgian factions literally at one another’s throats. Saakadze had to flee again — this time, he headed west to the Ottomans.

The wheel of fortune that had spun so dizzyingly for Saakadze time after time had one more revolution yet in store. Our fugitive/refugee now carried Turkish arms into the field, against the Persians and with his customary aptitude, but a figure of Saakadze’s malleable allegiances was always at risk of being damned a traitor by some palace enemy. That’s exactly what happened in 1629.

What to make of such a figure? Saakadze did not want for daring, and his defections had not been so piratical and opportunistic as a Alcibiades — thus, even by the end of the 17th century, this larger-than-life adventurer was celebrated in verse with an aggrandizement upon his original Georgian office: the “Grand Mouravi“. It was not long before he had entered Georgians’ pantheon of patriotic heroes.

Saakadze’s legend really took off in the 20th century, aided by that inescapable scion of Georgia, Joseph Stalin. The man was always up for reappropriating a hero out of modernity’s nascence into a nation-galvanizing icon for the Soviet state.

Packaging Saakadze as a martyr to a backwards time of squabbling princes, Stalin commissioned a film that centers its subject as a Georgian hero — which was a sentiment needed when Giorgi Saakadze was released in 1943 because the Wehrmacht was also using the man’s name to brand a battalion of Georgian recruits.

* The martyr-king Luarsab was no longer family for Saakadze, having put aside Saakadze’s sister with the family’s disgrace.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Georgia,Guerrillas,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Separatists,Soldiers,Syria

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2014: Two crucifixions in Raqqa

Add comment April 29th, 2017 Headsman

In the Syrian city of Raqqa on this date in 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) reportedly crucified two men in a posthumous public gibbeting, after executing them by shooting. (There were seven executions in Raqqa that day.)

Raqqa was the Islamic State’s breakthrough conquest, and the city it claims as its caliphate’s capital — the “Bride of the Revolution.”

Horrific pictures of these crucifixions circulated worldwide thanks to the dissident group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Needless to say, what follows is Mature Content.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,ISIS/ISIL,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Syria,Wartime Executions

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1946: Sulaiman Murshid, Alawite prophet

1 comment December 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Alawite prophet Sulaiman Murshid (German Wikipedia) was hanged by the newly independent state of Syria as a traitor and a blasphemer.

In the mid-1920s, this shepherd turned demigod* on the coast of French Mandate Syria began reporting mystical visions, and soon gathered a following — and then, a larger and larger following.

Shia Alawites are a small minority in Syria, maybe 12% of the present-day population, so it might have been key to Murshid’s success that he so happened to begin his mission in a short-lived Alawite State created within the French Mandate. (Neither keen on his movement nor inspired to arrest it, the colonial French dismissed him as la Thaumaturge de Jobet Burghal.) It was a cradle in which a peasant obscurity grew into a political as well as a prophetic power — a tribal chief who could command armed men and rents.

Come 1936, the Alawite State folded into the Syrian Republic, and by that time Murshid’s adherents were so numerous that they promptly elected him to parliament.

Although this arrangement offered Murshid new vectors of ascent, the environment turned speedily hostile after France withdrew and Syria gained independence in 1946. Murshid’s entity was intrinsically inimical to a centralizing nation-state, and his lowly origins, suspect ethnicity, and half-heretical messianism all tended to set him at odds with Damascus. He was arrested for subversion by Syria’s nationalist first president Shukri al-Quwatli and hanged on Merdsche Square.

Murshid’s sons carried on the movement, whose followers, the al-Murshidun, were persecuted in the years after his death until fellow Alawite Hafez al-Assad ascended to the presidency in 1970. Today their sect numbers in the six figures.

* For more on Murshid’s background and the initial growth of his movement, see “Suleiman al-Murshid: Beginnings of an Alawi Leader” by Gitta Yaffe and Uriel Dann in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1993).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Syria

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Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Add comment September 27th, 2015 Headsman


The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico.

September 27 is the traditional* feast date of early Christian saints Cosmas and Damian.

Martyred in Syria during the Diocletian persecution, these Arabian brothers were reputedly physicians who did not charge their patients, even for premium services like transplanting an entire leg.


Cosmas and Damian graft an Ethiopian’s leg onto a white patient.

This has made them patron saints to doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and dentists but decidedly not to insurers.

They were once much more widely known and revered than today, back when the mysteries of medicine and of faith intertwined with one another. The two are named in the Canon of the Mass, and multiple churches in Europe dubiously claim the honor the ancient doctors’ relics; their skulls alone reside simultaneously in Bremen, Vienna, and Madrid, while a church in Venice allegedly holds their non-cranial remains. Visitors to the Roman Forum will behold the beautifully preserved pagan Temple of Romulus, which was rededicated in 527 as the basilica of Santi Cosma de Damiano and still hosts weddings beneath its impressive Cosmas and Damian mosaic.


A reliquary for the skulls of Cosmas and Damian in St. Michael’s Church, Munich.

The saints’ day is observed in Brazil, where children on September 27 receive candies (Cosmas and Damian also count confectioners and children among their devotees). St. Anthony’s Church in Utica, New York, also hosts an annual Cosmas and Damian pilgrimage attracting thousands of people from across North America.

As two men intimate with one another who traveled and ministered together, they are sometimes speculatively ventured as early gay exemplars. (They’re traditionally accounted as brothers.)

* The Vatican’s 1969 calendar revision moved the feast to September 26, leaving September 27 to St. Vincent de Paul.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Syria,Uncertain Dates

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