Hundreds of students, academics, activists and diplomats overwhelmed the LSE last week at a conference on Syria organised by its Middle East Centre. It was heartening to see so many profoundly concerned about the Syrian regime’s no-holds-barred violence.
A highlight was a moving speech by Suheir Attassi, a senior representative of the Syrian revolution. She detailed the tragic toll of civilian deaths since the revolution started. Leaving aside military casualties, she said that a total of 28,605 civilians had died. This includes 1,827 children, including 347 under 10. The tally also includes 9,029 women and 855 who have been tortured and killed. She estimates 2,035 rapes, many killed afterwards. Nine thousand are in jail and 27,000 are missing. So far.
Thousands have fled to neighbouring countries. Angelina Jolie, who has recently toured refugee camps, comments, ‘When you meet so many innocent people and civilians, the people of Syria are asking who is on their side: ‘Who is going to help us as the months go on?’
Back in London Suheir Atassi was scathing about foreign intervention – from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. She urged consistent and coherent anti-Assad intervention and appealed for funds for a radio station linking the Syrian opposition to the people.
Suheir was less convincing about the position of the Kurds in the Syrian revolution and sought refuge in the formula that Kurds are Syrian. The three million Kurds are the single biggest minority and should be equal citizens. Many have been stateless in Assad’s Arab republic where Kurds, Druze and Christians were children of a lesser God.
However, resolving the Kurdish question – cultural rights, schools, autonomy within the current boundaries of Syria – should be part of the revolution’s platform. Otherwise Kurds will be understandably fearful that their second-class status could continue after Assad.
Assad is dug in for a long fight. One Syrian avers that Assad is actually insane. The implication is frightening. The Times has revealed that Assad has plans to use chemical weapons, according to Major-General Adnan Sillu, who defected three months ago and was the head of Syria’s chemical arsenal, the third largest in the world.
He told the Times that: ‘We discussed this as a last resort – such as if the regime lost control of an important area such as Aleppo.’ Sillu also revealed that Assad considered transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah ‘for use against Israel’ because ‘if a war starts between Hezbollah and Israel it will be only good for Syria.’
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan regional government high representative in the UK says, ‘As Syria’s neighbours, this is profoundly disturbing because we have some experience of totalitarian regimes using chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on more than 200 occasions in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s … as part of the genocide perpetrated against the Kurds. She urges the international community, including Britain, to recognise it as such. Please sign up here.
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who I work with to lead the Kurdistan Genocide Task Force, told the Times that the chilling possibility that a desperate Syrian regime could follow the example of its erstwhile sister fascist regime in Iraq in WMD should sound alarm bells globally.
The international community’s silence and inaction when Saddam Hussein used nerve agents and mustard gas in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s only emboldened him and other tyrants to think they could get away with it. Bearing witness to the genocide against the Iraqi Kurds remains morally right and also helps create a climate in which another Ba’athist butcher might just realise that it would be a disastrous error for him to take.
What is to be done? Tony Blair says that deciding if it is moral to intervene or not is ‘incredibly difficult’ and that people of good faith ‘don’t have to call someone a liar if you simply disagree with them.’
Blair believes that ‘we’ve got to look very carefully at what more we can do to ratchet up the pressure on Assad and the regime because I know people say inevitably he will go. I don’t think it is inevitable actually unless we are prepared to make it clear that our support and solidarity for those people that are struggling against what is a very, very brutal repression now, that support will continue.’
As for military action: ‘I would be advocating ramping up where we are. Now, how you do that whether it’s along the lines of what the Turks have suggested which is you create zones of immunity … I am certainly very alarmed at the prospect of … the notion that we just kind of leave that now because I think the consequence of that will be very brutal and very bloody for all the people there.’
This isn’t, as blogger Shiraz Maher rightly points out, necessarily advocating military intervention but advocating the need to explore military options more thoroughly and that ‘as the crisis in Syria intensifies and the country falls into increasing lawlessness, only the jihadists benefit.’
Few seem to recall the successful operation mounted by the US, the UK and France to establish a no-fly zone and safe haven for Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. Such Kurdish lessons will be debated at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference next week.
In the meantime, surely the starting point of urgent debate is solidarity with the Syrian people, opposition to the barbarism of the current regime and contempt for its fellow-travellers.
* The KRG fringe meeting on Responsibility to Protect: Kurdish lessons for Syria and the Middle East is at noon on Tuesday 2 October in the Victoria Suite. Chair, Gary Kent. Speakers include Dave Anderson MP, Mike Gapes MP and John Slinger.
Gary Kent is the administrator of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region. He tweets @GaryKent
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