Joseph Daher interviews Syrian-Kurdish activist in exile, Alan Hassaf
This interview was originally published in Arabic in Syria Freedom Forever:
Joseph Daher: Let’s start with your participation in the Qamishli uprising in 2004 and the Syrian revolution, which began in 2011. Why did you participate in them and what was your role?
Alan Hassaf: In March 2004, I was a student at Aleppo University, Kurds gathered in all Syrian cities in these difficult days, harsh repression occurred in Kurdish neighborhoods and cities in which demonstrations were organised. Many martyrs fell in these protests. In Aleppo, the regime’s repression able it to maintain control of the situation, trapping the university and the university’s campuses, and arrested many of the organizers’ activists, what created an additional sense of alienation from the Syrian society. I remember the names of dozen of my Arab friends who have shown solidarity with the Kurdish protests that continued for several days at the University of Aleppo, but except them the Arab street was mostly hostile to our movement. Most of often the Arab street did not stand between at equal distance from the two parties (regime vs Kurdish protesters), but participated in accusing the Kurds protesting of betrayal against “the resistant” Syria and against Syria the “heart of Arabism”.
In the years that followed, the Syrian Revolution was a permanent dream as a Kurd and as a Syrian, and I wished it so much to come one day.
[In 2011] I participated in the demonstrations in Qamishli and in Damascus, and with the passing of the first months, the need for coordination appeared increasingly. I participated with some colleagues in the establishment of the Union of Free Syrian Students, which was then one of the few platforms that adopted an absolute peaceful and non-sectarian discourse and program and focused on the principles of the revolution. I became media spokesperson on behalf of the Union. I also worked as a member of the Local Coordination Committees and “In the days of freedom”. Unfortunately our reading of the situation did not match the reality as it subsequently appeared, because with the continuation of the revolution and the intervention of the international parties in different ways, whether to support the regime or “to support” the revolution, this eliminated any influential role likely to be played by the civil movement, with the corruption of the sound of arms and of political money.
Civil parties of the popular movement also came under tremendous pressure, and from different forms: the regime on the one hand and the opposition on the other as well. The regime increased the amount of blood and voices calling for armed resistance started to get more important. With the increasing militarization of the revolution, I felt that I did not belong anymore to the Student Union, which was present in 22 Syrian cities at that period to coordinate the work of the students, nor to the local coordination committees, which committed to the peacefulness of the revolution largely, saw its pivotal role weakened considerably compared as in the beginnings.
Can you tell us more about the Kurdish uprising in 2004?
Alan Hassaf: Unlike the Turkish and Iraqi historical Kurdistan regions, which had both suffered direct pressures and radical violence leading to the outbreak of numerous Kurdish revolts during the twentieth century, the various regimes that have governed Syria since the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the subsequent governments of secession and the Baath party later policies were a bit different. These governments practiced maximum pressures but without breaking the balance to arrive to the point of explosion and revolution. It engaged in unremitting efforts to arabize every detail of the Kurdish region in Syria, and took the lands of the Kurds in the border strip to distribute them to the Arabs who had been brought from an area of Euphrates basin, and forbade Kurdish language and culture, as well as prevented any public political or civil expression incompatible with the over-Arabism policy pursued by these regimes. The Qamishli uprising was a result of the accumulation of decades of repression exerted on the Syrian Kurds, in addition to the general injustice in which the Syrians are equaly exposed.
Let us elaborate further on this point. How do you view the position of the Syrian opposition on the Kurdish issue?
Alan Hassaf: I think, the Syrian opposition did not bother to search longly to find a serious and honest solution to the Kurdish issue, and most of the solutions were prosthesis and a way to postpone the Kurdish issue rather than to solve it. Since most of the Syrian opposition spectrum believes that the resolution of the Kurdish issue is to be found in the framework of the rest of the minorities’ issue, differing only by its language as non arabic, while considering Kurds simply as part of the united Syrian people. They propose solutions on the basis of this approach, such as of “citizenship” or issues of ” the rule of law “, which they believe will fulfill their objective in Syria’s future. But this issue is much deeper than that, there is a general awareness of a collective Kurdish identity; Syria as a political entity was established without taking in consideration the opinion of the communities living within it, including the Kurds. The Kurdistan is divided- just as Arab states are – and the basis of this vision is that Syria for the Kurds is a country gathering a number of nationalities and religious communities, and the only way to maintain the unity and establish a healthy identity for Syria is to work seriously to see a future Syria federal state built on a social and political new contract, which will achieve the interests of all parties in co-existence. There will be no identification with Syrian identity for the Kurds without recognizing Kurdish identity constitutionally in all its dimensions, geographic, cultural, political and economic dimensions. This is why the gap between the rhetoric of the Arab opposition and the awareness of the Kurdish collective consciousness is still so deep, although the Syrian opposition is seeking – or claim to seek – to realise a new Syria, which is no different in essence from the vision of the regime of the country of the last decades.
How has the situation in Kurdish areas developed since the start of the revolution? How has the Assad regime dealt with the popular movement in these areas? What is the relationship between the various Kurdish groups and Syrian revolutionaries, the Free Syrian Army, the Islamist forces, etc.?
Alan Hassaf: I remember that the first demonstration in Qamishli after the beginning of the Syrian revolution was in early April of 2011, just two weeks after the first demonstrations in Deraa. The Kurdish youth had the main role in the coordination of the demonstrations, to organise them on a weekly basis and on permanent basis in Qamishli and all Kurdish cities. The Kurdish coordination committees coordinated and cooperated with their counterparts in other Syrian cities across the different networks available to coordinate between them, such as the Local Coordination Committee and the Syrian Revolution General the Revolution Commission and others.
At that period, the regime repressed demonstrations with live bullets in a number of cities though out the country, but it used less harsh repressive tools in dealing with demonstrations in the Kurdish regions. Protesters however suffered tear gas, while regime’s forces attacked protesters and shoot over the heads of demonstrators to disperse them, and in every protests security forces arrested demonstrators or through subsequent raids – and some of the detainees of that period are still disappeared until today.
Later, with the beginnings of the establishment of the “Free Syrian Army”, the revolutionary Kurdish street, the coordination committees and the political movements had real hopes with the formation of the Free Syrian Army to express the values of the revolution. The Kurdish street thus welcomed the statement of Hussein Harmoush for example. This was before some sections of the FSA turned into different Brigades receiving support from various parties: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, etc… to turn the country into a war zone to oppose the support provided by Iran and Hezbollah to the regime, a war between military forces with their agendas and interests far from the priority and the interests of the Syrian people. The political money and provision of weapons and ammunition played the biggest role in the transformation of large sectors of the Free Syrian Army, which was established to defend civilians in demonstrations, towards brigades taking an increasing islamicized turn. This situation drove away the Kurdish street from the Syrian armed opposition as a result of lack of acceptance of the Kurdish street of the Islamic military forces for intellectual and societal and historical reasons.
What do you think of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in general? And what do you make of the self-governance/autonomy experiment in Syrian Kurdistan?
Allan Hassaf: As all the other political parties, it has many positive and negative aspects, and at one period, it led the struggle against the Turkish state during thirty years, and their cadres were the most organised and sacrificed themselves. It however remains an ideological party that seeks to build an authoritarian system, which eliminates the individual and collective freedoms. This is what it is doing in Syria Kurdistan as well. On one side the PKK and its Syrian wing the Democratic Union Party (known as the PYD) played a role in protecting the Kurdish region from Islamic extremists, but a Kurdish version of another authoritarian system was established Kurdish in the region during the past three years. A regime that depends on the security and control of the joints of the economy, politics and the military. It also cancelled any influential role for any political competitor, limited the role of civil society and prevented though various ways the possibility to work freely and effectively in public affairs. With every day that passes, the capabilities of the Democratic Union Party increase economically over the control of the region’s economy and use it at the service of the ideology and the militarization of the region through conscription and exploitation of the threat of radical Islamic forces , which is however real, in the militarization. A similar pace, it increased restrictions on political and civil movement in Syrian Kurdistan, and it limited freedoms spaces, symbolically by occupying them by images of the leader of the PKK, “Apo”.
It is possible that the Kurdish region be a democratic space in the Middle East, if managed differently, which would give the region and its management – whether Democratic Union Party or someone else – greater legitimacy and long-term stability, but unfortunately all of the events suggest otherwise.
What is your opinion on the declaration of federalism in north Syria by the PYD?
The Unilateral declaration “of the federal system in the Rojava” harmed the federalist proposition, although federalism is one of the most logical solutions for the future of Syria, but it needs at the same time a consensus between the various Syrian components in a constitutional framework.
Do you support a federal system in Syria and if so why?
Alan Hassaf: Syria is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, with divergent societal system and customs. The societal laws and customs governing life in Deir Ezzor, for example, are very different from the city of Aleppo in all its components, despite the absence of national or sectarian differences between the two cities. And so on for all of from Sweida, Deraa, Hama and Homs, Latakia, Idlib, Raqqa and Hassaka … etc. These differences existed before the revolution and continue to exist, and the gap has even increased as a result of the ongoing war
In this perspective, we must take into account that the imposition of one color and of one laws on all Syrians in the future is in practice to push for instability and division, the only solution to ensure the unity of Syria on the one hand and achieve the aspirations of the various Syrian communities, ethnic and confessional groups on the other hand is to go towards a decentralized system, may be one of the federal forms. Dozens of countries around the world have adopted federalism for various reasons, and it has been a viable solution for most part of these countries, taking into account the fact that federalism alone is not a solution to all the problems, but is the way to work on it and build the elements of partnership between all Syrians to establish a healthy and better system in order to avoid to get to the point of no return between the components of the Syrian people, and to avoid the emergence of a new centralized dictatorships.
Do you think it is possible to build a Third Force, that is democratic and progressive and guarantees the fulfilment of the original goals of the revolution, and that is independent from the regime and the backward Islamist forces?
Alan Hassaf: The demands of the Syrian street is absent, the principles of the beginning of the revolution are absent, the conflicting parties, either the regime or the opposition represented by the Coalition forces and Islamic fundamentalist forces, the two military sides, are acting as part of the regional and international policy. When the demand was to overthrow the regime to achieve freedom, justice and dignity, it turned – in some way – to the ultimate goal of some sections of the opposition mentioned above, while the overthrow of the regime – alone – will not achieve the demands of the Syrian people. No one can say for sure now what will be the future of Syria with the conflicting parties that possess weapons and force. Unfortunately the Syrian street could not separate itself from the equation (regime – opposition), Standing against any party of them both necessarily mean you stand next to the other, while the two parties as they stood will not be able to achieve the aspirations of anyone but only the interests of the warlords and countries supporting the regime or the opposition, whether Iran or Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Russia … etc.
There is an urgent need for the presence of a third party only committed to whatever it takes to reach freedom and the achievement of a future Syria that guarantees the interests of all Syrians. The existence of such a party however does not necessarily mean its ability to influence the political equation, since that sovereignty now lies in weapons alone, but this remains better than the silence option or to acknowledge the inevitability of blind following behind the Islamic forces in order to overthrow the regime.
27 May 2016
originally published in Arabic in Syria Freedom Forever Blog