Abu Layla, a Syrian Kurdish commander. Photo: screenshot from YouTube video
Abu Layla, the Syrian Kurdish commander was a genuine and spirited revolutionary echoing a new hope for the anguished Syrians caught in a maelstrom of civil and proxy wars. As a visionary of a pluralistic democracy he cherished diversity and cultivated cultural and religious tolerance. When he died, the whole town of Kobani and people from neighboring areas went to his funeral to pay homage to a passionate believer in humanity, a fearless warrior and a dreamer.
Irrespective of their political spectrum, many dignitaries including KRG President Masoud Barzani, Brett McGurk, the US coalition envoy, and Lahur Talabani, director of KRG’s Counter-terrorism mourned his death. He was indeed an extraordinary figure that only a revolution can create to the extent that he (re)-created the revolution in the midst of a senseless and endless violence.
Our knowledge about the short life of the legendary hero, Abu Layla is fragmentary and sporadic, but all sources point to a legacy of a gallant warrior who fought with exceptional foresight against the shackles of tyranny, bigotry, and misogyny. Abu Layla showed his commitment to gender equality by changing his birth name from Faisal Sardoun, to Abu Layla, in his daughter’s honor to break away from patriarchal lineage that subjugates women.
Abu Layla was born in 1984 in Kobani, but raised in Manbij, an ethnically diverse city. Little is known about his formal education; he appeared to have absorbed Kurdish folklore and songs, collecting songs by ear as he could be seen on Youtube videos, singing his favorite songs of love, liberty, bravery. He was a mechanic before joining the movement for change through the general insurgency in Syria. He had fought in Aleppo and several other fronts for creating a democratic and civil society before the uprising degenerated into a vicious sectarian and proxy civil war.
Events were become more gruesome and terrifying as various Jihadist criminals and thugs were invading Syria and Iraq with their blades of blood and hearts of stone, planting their black flags everywhere, creating apocalyptic spectacles in marching into petrified villages and towns, expanding their caliphate dominion through genocides and gendercide of Yezidis, Christians, and other minorities or anyone who defied them, beheading hostages, displacing, depopulating, and expelling hundreds of thousands of people. While Abu Layla had at some point some doubts about continuing his struggle, he could not tolerate the unfolding tragedies that were haunting his land and returned to the life of struggle assigned to him.
When in 2014 his hometown of Kobani came under the vicious assault of 6,000 Jihadists armed to teeth with a modern arsenal and even a more destructive ideology, Abu Layla became the voice and face of resistance in a city that ISIS wanted to exploit as its final victory and testament to its military invincibility. Abu Layla bravely and tirelessly fought along the defenders of the city and although he was injured seven times, he never gave up; until eventually with help from the US and Peshmerga, the invaders were expelled and driven away. As a firm believer in the collective power of people and while appreciative of the US air support, he argued that it was “the Kobani defenders themselves who would decide the outcome of the confrontation.”
It was during the second attack on Kobani that the world saw his profound sense of humanity. After his men found a trapped ISIS terrorist, half buried in rubbles. Abu Layla asked his men to treat the surviving man well before sending him back to his family. In an interview when asked why he wanted to spare the life of the surviving terrorist, he said, “We stand for humanity contrary to DAESH that hates humanity and spreads death wherever they go.” One of the most moving scenes of the battle of Kobani is during the June 2015 assault on the city in which 200 people were killed; a video clip shows Abu Layla’s crutches against a balcony railings while he is shooting at suicide bombers that had penetrated the city. In an interview reflecting on the importance of Kobani, he asserted the historic significance of their victory, “I have never seen a war like that of Kobani; the liberation of the city became an example, a symbol of the fight for liberation against the domination of DAESH. We will liberate all areas that are under their domination.”
Abu Layla also played a decisive role in founding and leading the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is leading the operations against ISIS in Raqqa and Manbij today. In an interview he eloquently had highlighted his vision of such a multi-ethnic force in a struggle was not “[only] for Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Christians or Muslim…I’m fighting for a free democratic Syria, not an Islamic but a free democratic Syria.”
From the time he joined the revolution against the oppressive Assad regime eight years ago to his victory in Kobani, to his battles in Gire Sipi, Hasakah, and Shadadi to his last battle in which he lost his life as the leading commander of the SDF, Abu Layla proved to be truly the epitome of democratic values and untainted aspirations of a grass root movement in Syria and Rojava. Although he acquired a new international prominence as one of the leading commanders of SDF, more than anything else he cared about saving lives and peaceful co-existence. In the end, the hero of Kobani lost his life, a price that he was willing to pay for liberty and safety of his daughter, Layla to whom he had written in a letter, “I’d fight for you, children like you, all dangers and risks we go through, is to work on a better future for you and children like you to live a free and safe life in this country…I missed you so much, my sweetie Layla, be sure to be proud of your father whether I am alive or a dead.”
This was his generous vision for the future of Syria and Rojava whose people have suffered immensely at the hands of Bashar al Assad, Islamic State, and proxy jihadis of all kinds. During a military operation to capture Manbij Abu Layla was shot again, but this time he could not withstand the fatal injuries. He died on June 6 when he was only 32, a man who embraced and upheld democracy, equality, and diversity in the face of terrifying and tragic times.
Dr. Amir Sharifi, President of the Kurdish American Education Society Los Angeles.