Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Kurdish lessons for Syria

Genocide against Iraq’s Kurds shows that more than words are required in Syria


I’ll start in an unusual way – by quoting some lyrics in rock band Extreme’s biggest hit – ‘More Than Words’:

‘More than words is all you have to do to make it real’.

To misquote the Bible … ‘justice cannot live by words alone’. The most important words in history are those in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, unequivocally: ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’

To say ‘I love you’ is meaningless unless we back up sentiment with action not just once, but always.  So in international relations, for the words of international law to mean anything, those to whom they apply must know that they carry force.

What is happening in Syria now shows the futility of the words we use to conduct international diplomacy. What is happening now is nothing new. It is commonplace for evil regimes or dictators, which have no democratic legitimacy to first flout and then trample on the words of international law, for they know that the world’s response is usually little more than WORDS.

Yet following recent tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere, the international community began developing a doctrine of the Responsibility To Protect via the United Nations’ International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Despite the overwhelming moral and practical logic of R2P, action is patchy to say the least.

People assume there is nobility in debating words, in JAW JAW not WAR WAR.

There is not. Dictators have no morality. They subscribe only to Stalin’s doctrine of ‘how many divisions does the pope have?’

Some say – ‘more JAW JAW less WAR WAR’. I say ‘LESS JAW JAW, more ACTION ACTION’.

The civilians of Syria do not want our pity, our expressions of outrage any more than the Kurds in Iraq would have appreciated mere sympathy as the WMDs rained down on them.

Kurdish lessons for Syria are mixed. Against the terrible fact that many thousands died in the genocide, we also witnessed how military intervention can allow human rights to be protected as with the commendable efforts of John Major to enforce no-fly zones in Iraq in 1991. At a stroke, words began to have practical and moral meaning.

We in Labour must not hide behind a naïve belief that any western intervention is an imperialist plot. Some on the left are so wedded to this misconception with the tragic result that they end up giving succour to evil fascist tyrants. Socialists once formed brigades to fight fascism in Spain. Now, some devote more energy to arresting Tony Blair than they do to stopping the Slayer of Syria or than they did against the Butcher of Baghdad before him.

I once stood in the garden of a Kurdish minister in the Red Zone in Baghdad as mortars and machine gun fire thundered nearby. A female Iraqi MP said to me that if they, the terrorists, won – we would all be finished. She did not mean only our physical safety in Baghdad. Can it be said that if we allow the human rights and human lives of women, children and freedom-fighters to be snuffed out in Syria, we can remain safe in fortress Britain?

Recognising the genocide against the Kurds is only a ‘retrospective start’. The Kurds are now rightly asking for some words from the UK government via an e-petition – they seek official recognition that the crimes against them were genocide.  The true power of this petition will be if it helps ensure that such crimes be both prevented and punished.

Human rights do and must trump the rights of so-called great powers to veto action to protect their own interests. The responsibility to protect should be enforced.

More than words!


This article is an abridged version of a speech made by John Slinger at the Kurdistan regional government UK representation fringe event at Labour party conference 2012, 2 October 2012


Details of the event and the panel can be found here.


Photo: Freedom House

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John Slinger

is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism

1 comment

  • I attended the first part of the Midland fringe meeting addressed by Slinger. Ed Miliband’s Q&A was due an hour later, and the queues are long….Slinger offers no evidence that the Kurds of Syria are at any greater risk of mass murder from the regime than any other ethnic group in the current civil war, and it is likely that the Alawites, who as a body seem closest to the Assad regime, and arguably to the – now it seems almost defunct – Baath party are far more at risk. Swingler however seems unconcerned about this risk. He also seems unconcerned about the well publicized atrocities against Christians in Syria and the inhabitants of Houla, both committed by the so-called Free Syrian movement. Indeed, the sectarian Sunni and indeed Wahhabite proclivities of the major faction/s in the so-called Free Syrian movement suggest that Shia and Druze people are also at more risk from the insurrectionaries than from the Assad Regime. What reports are there of genocide committed or threatened by that regime against the Kurds of Syria? What little evidence there is about the NE of Syria and especially Deir az Zour (site of a gruesome genocide of Armenians in the First World War by Kurdish levies in the Ottoman army – see eg Iraq – Republic of Fear published over the ( I understand Sunni) name of Samir al-Khalil, the author’s real name I believe being Kanan Makiya) suggests that Bashar al Assad is looking to all minority groups to stave off an insurrectionary victory – a victory which I dare to predict would make the murderous disasters visited on Iraq by the fraudulently justified Anglo-American aggression and on Libya, especially on black Libyans, notably in Tawergha, by the cheating no-fly-zone tactics of the Anglo-Franco-American clique – pale into insignificance, or at least to the scale of the massacres perpetrated by General Gouraud of the democratic French imperialists in 1923. Conservative and non-expansionist powers such as Russia, China and indeed Iran have seen through the trickery of these ‘ imperial democracies’ – in the case of the USA plutocracy would be a more accurate description.In fact dictators’ lack of conscience’ is no liability in foreign relations, and Robin Cook’s ‘foreign policy with an ethical aspect’ is one of the latest in a long sequence of inflammatory demagogic ruses in which regimes failing or bankrupt in their domestic policies resort to sabre-rattling and mass murder of civilians to enhance their reputation. Cook himself shamelessly faked up a mis-translation of Slobodan Milosevic’s Kosovo 1987 speech – a fake exposed by the US Department of Defense website translation. Such demagogy is necessary in order to make the civilian population joint accessories in the expansionist aggression plotted – or as in the case of Blair, a poor synthesis of Benito Mussolini and Anthony Eden that wonderful democratizer of Egypt against the Hitler of the 1950’s – lightmindedly indulged, by demagogic politicians. Errol Antony Henderson in his excellentDemocracy and War – the End of an Illusion? competently – I would say brilliantly – exposes the myth that democracies are more peaceful than other forms of regime. In fact the imperial democracies turn out to be the most aggressive of all regimes even on the facts and statistics offered by the myth-makers. Why a clique elected by some 15 percent of the population in the UK, France or the USA have the right to inflict shock and awe, torture on a mass scale, sectarian civil war, indefinite war-lord conflict, disease and economic ruin on foreigners just because their leaders happen to be unelected and because the imperial middle classes are seized by one of their periodical fits of morality, defies my understanding. ” As soon as I hear the cry of ‘something must be done’ I know something damn foolish is afoot – Nobody ever did anything very foolish except from some strong principle.’ as Lord Melbourne well put it.Even Jack Straw, well known for his complete lack of conscience, principle or respect for law (see Peter Wilby’s review of Straw’s autobiography Last Man Standing in the Guardian Sat Oct 6), resorted in 2001-3 to the nonsense about democracies being so much more peaceful than dictatorships that our democratic duty is to attack any and all dictatorships to impose peaceful ways upon them. Yes – that Jack Straw who is currently being sued for his part in the rendition and torture of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi (e.g Guardian 10.10.2012 p 4) – even he opines that Cook’s little demagogic flurry was ‘unhelpful’ – not to the people whom Straw and his allies have been highmindedly starving and murdering for years, but no doubt to Blair and Bush, those founts of veracity and civilization.I suspect that the Kurdish Regional Government and Gary Kent, sponsor of the appearance of the ‘Radical Pragmatists’ on his platform, failed to observe that conditions are more propitious for a peaceful and liberal unification of much of the Kurdish people than at any time since the Anglo-French theft of the Middle East in 1916-23. The Kurdish nations, albeit separated by their own language, history and dynastic governance, have been granted autonomy within Iraq, some freedom of action within Iran, have marginally benefited from a relaxation of oppression by the Turkish government; the Assad regime needs their acquiescence if not their support. Invocation of the imperial ‘responsibility to protect’ exercised as always by crazed self-exaltation and excited by a slew of horror stories timed as carefully as the British lies about Serbian rape camps and the Serbian ‘responsibility’ for Kosovar refugees – actually murdered by the RAF and USAAF – is now the main danger to further Kurdish autonomy. The KRG can rely on the Kurdish peoples or on the imperialists. I am afraid that they will do the latter and will find that like that Tutu dictator and invader of the eastern Congo, Paul Kagame, that idol of Tony Blair, they are no longer of any use to the imperialists and that the liberal conscience has moved on to new and fresher victims and clients.

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