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Kurdish Opposition of Syria speaks up

At the Palace of Westminster, leading Kurd figures call for a "united front" against the Assad regim

UK-based representatives of Syria's Kurdish opposition met on Wednesday, 15 February, in the House of Lords. They came, under the title of Struggle for Democratic Change in Syria, to discuss critically the current humanitarian situation and necessary preparations for a post-Assad Syria.

Since protesters took to the streets against the Assad regime in mid-March 2011, the UN Human Rights Council estimates 5,500 people have lost their lives. As conditions continue to deteriorate, many Syrians fear a transition towards sectarian war.

Opening the meeting, host Lord Hylton raised concerns that British public opinion on the issue of Syria had "become confused". The presence of violence and the complexity of the opposition scene, he cited, are factors contributing to such confusion. Kurdish figures representing various opposition groups spoke alongside Lord Hylton of the need for a united front against the regime.

Khalaf Dahowd, speaking as UK representative for the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), affirmed that "there can be no alternative regime until the opposition is united". He added that the opposition will gain international support more easily if it unifies. Dahowd further reflected critically on the missed opportunities of lobbying Russian and Chinese officials "with a united face"; to ask for their support and to ask them to withdraw their support for the regime. China, he explained, had not met any opposition figure until recently, when it met with representatives of the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria.

Dahowd reiterated the NCB's principle of "no to violence, no to sectarian strife and no to foreign military intervention". His view that the revolution must remain peaceful -- "otherwise it will become sectarian" -- was echoed by speaker Dr. Alan Semo, representing the Democratic Union Party (PYD). For Dr. Semo, it is important to remember that the violence comes from the regime and not from the protesters. He added that "if non-violence seems romantic, then I support 'the romantic' over weapons, since," he argued, "arming the revolution would quickly raise the death toll to 100,000".

Dr. Semo highlighted that, while the NCB recognizes Kurdish national rights, the Syrian National Council (SNC) -- the most internationally recognized opposition body -- does not: "The SNC talks of the Kurds as France talks of its immigrants. How can I fight with you if you don't even recognize me?" The SNC has been criticized -- even by its Kurdish members -- for exclusion of Kurdish interests. Dr. Alan stressed that "the right to self-determination [for Kurds and other minorities] must be enshrined in the new constitution now. Later, it can be determined, through popular referendum, what form self-determination should take". Both Dr. Semo and Dahowd expressed concern about the influence of the Turkish state on the Istanbul-established SNC; given Turkey's vested interest as a neighbour and as it is not a good example of democracy. They asked how Turkey could support the Syrian opposition's movement towards democracy when it has an unresolved problem with its own indigenous Kurds.

Finally, Rebar Hajo, speaking on behalf of the Syrian Kurdish Council in Britain, similarly emphasized the importance of the opposition working closely with one another and forming a clear and unified agenda. The regime, he said, "has lost the revolution already. Yes, it is still costing us lives, but they have already lost in the end and peaceful ways of struggle will only ensure our democratic future with the rest of our Syrian citizens." The main task now, he suggested, is to look beyond this regime, to come together and build a free, democratic society "so that our enemies cannot divide us and take advantage of the chaos when the regime finally falls." He went on: "The chaos is a fact that we should not be afraid of. It accompanies nearly every revolution and is a bitter reality that we just have to accept in order to achieve a greater cause: freedom."

Mr Hajo also called for a stop to the brutal violence in the towns of Homs and Hama, and the rest of the country by a regime that has already lost its legitimacy. "The backing of the international community," he argued, "is essential in order to provide protection for the revolutionaries facing this barbaric regime and also to provide safe zones for Syrian refugees." Dr. Semo concluded the meeting with an appeal to the international community "to insist that the Syrian regime meets the legitimate demands of the protesters and allow a peaceful transition of power towards a democratic, free and pluralistic Syria, where all ethno-religious segments of Syrian society will be equally represented by a new democratic, pluralistic Syrian constitution."

Taghee Moas is the pseudonym for a freelance writer on the Middle East

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.