It’s Official: Stop the War is responsible for the Syrian Civil War

I am not a member of the Stop the War Coalition, but I have been part of the movement ever since it developed in the lead up to the Iraq War.  I may not agree with all of its positions, and I don’t share the politics of some of its members, but I share its central aims, and I can’t help noticing that the usual criticisms against it have risen to a new crescendo recently.

No one will be surprised that Douglas Murray regards Stop the War as ‘ a meeting point for hardline Stalinists and Islamists to pursue their own imperial policies.’  Or even that the Guardian’s Rafael Behr sees it as  ‘a doctrinaire pressure group that sets its moral compass by quasi-Leninist rejection of “western imperialism”’ – a concept that less ‘doctrinaire’ pundits like Behr always put in scaremarks, because as every liberal interventionist knows, there is no such thing as western imperialism, only lots of good men and women trying to do the best thing in a bad world.

The traces of that touching benevolence can be found from Central Asia to North Africa, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – and to some extent Syria, but none of that ever seems to phase the Behrs and Nick Cohens of this world, who always seem to know, or at least believe, that the next ‘intervention’ will be better than the last.

So criticisms of STW are only to be expected from such quarters.   But Stop the War has also been attacked from the left  over its position on Syria.  In the past four years it has been accused of hypocrisy,double standards, racism and Orientalism, betraying the Syrian revolution, supporting Bashar al-Assad and acting as apologists for dictatorship.

At times anyone listening to these criticisms would be forgiven for thinking that if Stop the War didn’t exist, then the Syrian revolution would have triumphed, or at least that this horrific war would have been brought to some kind of positive conclusion. .

Some of these criticisms were repeated during last week’s discussion in London, which Peter Tatchell and a number of Syrian and non-Syrian solidarity activists attempted to disrupt, on the grounds that Syrians were not represented.  I wasn’t at the meeting, but from what I have read, and from what I have seen in the long section devoted to this episode in Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics show, it is clear that by Syrians, these protesters only referred to Syrians in favour of Western military intervention.

The sudden interest that a rightwinger  like Neil should take in Stop the War discussions is partly an indirect tribute to the coalition’s influence, and partly yet another attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn by association with ‘Stalinists and Leninists’,  following last week’s announcement that the Labour leader may consult Stop the War in the event of proposals to extend Britain’s bombing campaign in Iraq to Syria.

Certainly one would like to see Neil hectoring Philip Hammond or Michael Fallon the way he hectored Diane Abbott about why no Syrians were allowed to attend diplomatic talks in Vienna, .but don’t hold your breath about that.

The criticisms emanating from Tatchell and the Syrian solidarity activist Muzna cannot be dismissed as part of some rightwing smear plot however,  regardless of how they might be used by people like Neil.  For some leftists, Stop the War is the most visible manifestation of the supposedly intellectually and morally decadent left that has ‘turned its back’ on Syria and the Syrian revolution and embraced a phony internationalism that is only directed at the West.

These accusations can be found in articles, Internet sites and Facebook chat sites, and some of them have been directed at me personally, in response to articles that I have written.  Their tone is often as inquisitorial and hectoring as Neil’s faux-moralistic interrogation of Diane Abbott.

Speaking for myself, I am ready to admit that my position on Syria is not without contradictions, but I don’t think that contradictions are unique to those of us who have opposed western military intervention in this war.

As far as being an ‘apologist’ for Assad is concerned, I have never really doubted the brutality of the Syrian regime..  That was clear long before the war started, whether it was the behavior of the Syrian army in Lebanon or its participation as offshore torturer during the Bush terror wars. Those who praise Syria as part of the ‘axis of resistance’ often ignore such things, just as they ignore the participation of Bashar al-Assad’s father in the first Gulf War.

Nevertheless, it was clear quite early on in the war that some of the violence attributed to Assad was being deliberately exaggerated by the regime’s opponents – both Syrian and non-Syrian, in order to justify another ‘humanitarian intervention’. . I cannot think of any armed conflict in history in which major news outlets have relied for casualty figures and details for the most part on a single organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – run by an opponent of Assad’s who runs a clothes shop in Coventry.

I didn’t believe that Assad used chemical weapons on the eve of UN weapons inspections – not because I am an ‘apologist’ for such actions, but because it was so obviously not in Assad’s political and military interests to cross Obama’s ‘red line’ and trigger military intervention which his government was clearly anxious to avoid.

It is a legitimate criticism to say that I – and other sections of the left – have not always spoken out against the atrocities carried out by the Syrian security forces and their paramilitary allies.  But those leftists who accuse us of being apologists for genocide etc. have been equally silent about the massacres of Christians and the killings of Syrian army prisoners by elements of the opposition – and I’m not referring to Isis/Daesh here.

Those who accuse us of betraying the revolution ignore the reactionary politics that permeate so much of the Syrian opposition and their foreign backers.  Should I call people who don’t mention such things hypocrites and ‘apologists’?  No, and I won’t do it.  But those who throw out such accusations at Stop the War fail to explain which elements of an opposition that now includes about 1,000 armed groups could take power or hold Syria together.

Those who protest the exclusion of Syrians from Stop the War conferences are unlikely to refer to polls – admittedly made in wartime conditions – that continue to suggest that close to half the Syrian population has supported Assad’s government throughout the war.

Could that support disappear if the war ended? Almost certainly, but the presentation of the Syrian war as a conflict between the radical evil of ‘ Assad’ on one hand and ‘the Syrian people’ on the other entirely fails to explain how the regime has lasted so long, or why some 35,000 Syrian soldiers have died defending it, or what would happen to the Syrians that have supported the regime if the Free Syrian Army or Jabhat al-Nusra took power.

There was a similar tendency amongst the liberal advocates of military intervention in Iraq to talk about nothing but ‘Saddam’, as though the Iraqi state and Iraqi society were embodied by a single person, and all that was necessary was to ‘remove’ him, as Tony Blair likes to put it.   Those interventionists often referred to Iraqis and their ‘Iraqi friends’ to support their cause and give it greater credibility.

I agree that is a tendency amongst some sections of the left to take an all-encompassing conspiratorial view of the Syrian war that ignores Syrians and the internal dynamics of Syrian society that drove the conflict.  There are those who believe that the entire war was solely due to proxy interventions.   That isn’t a view that I share.

The protests that began in 2011 were clearly the consequence of the political and economic failings of an authoritarian political system that was well past its sell-by date, all of which were exacerbated by the country’s longrunning drought, the disastrous and bloody development of the Iraq war and the onset of the ‘Arab spring.’

Though Assad had previously presented himself as a political reformer – not without justification, his government reacted to these protests with extreme violence, as Arab governments often do whenever their power is threatened.  But these developments provided an opportunity to Syria’s neighbors – and the Western powers that had wanted regime change in Syria  for years beforehand – to enter the conflict and militarize it still further without regard for the consequences..

In these circumstances it was entirely logical to regard the proposals for military intervention as an extension of the process begun in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to regard no fly zones as a lever to bring about regime change, just as they had been in Libya. There was in the recent history of such interventions to suggest that they would have any other result, except to turn Syria into yet another failed state, and a base for further attacks on Iran and Hezbollah that would strengthen Israel and the reactionary Gulf tyrannies into the bargain.

That position doesn’t make us ‘apologists’; it’s simply a question of priorities in a situation where the options quickly ranged from bad to worse.  It was and is a question of trying to separate what is desirable – the end of the Ba’athist regime and a democratic government that represents all Syria’s minorities and upholds their political and civil rights – from what was always more likely – the complete destruction of Syria as a society and as a state and the destabilisation of an entire region.

When the war began, I thought that the best possible outcome  was an interim political arrangement in which would Assad would temporarily remain before paving the way for some kind of coalition government – but the humanitarians of the Gulf States and their western allies shot down that option at Geneva with their insistence on his departure as a precondition for further talks.

Now, in the short term at least, I think that a temporary political/military arrangement between the Assad government – preferably without Assad himself – and those elements of the Syrian opposition and their foreign supporters (and not only Russia and Iran) may be the only way to defeat Daesh and the takfiri groups, prevent Syria from total disintegration and endless violence and ensure a future in which politics becomes possible once again.

Calling for the ‘Syrian revolution’ to do this, and berating Stop the War for not doing so too, is just posturing and pointscoring.    In a war in which neither side can defeat the other, the choices are not nearly as pristine as some of these critics sometimes seem to think they are.  Wars like this tend to end in ugly, messy compromises – Algeria being one of many examples.

Right now, ending the war in Syria ought to be the single, overriding priority, rather than criticizing those who oppose yet another strategically clueless British military intervention.

And even though my position doesn’t fill me with a warm glowing feeling,  I have yet to hear any arguments, whether from Syrians or non-Syrians, to make me change it..

 

Erdogan’s Massacre

Terrorist atrocities tend to provoke a predictable stock response from politicians and governments. Invariably there is a great deal of sonorous rhetoric, accompanied by exhortations  to the population to stand firm and show unity in the face of the universal evil of ‘terrorism’.   Nearly always there is a lot of use of the first person plural, as in ‘we’ will never will never give in, ‘we’ never surrender, ‘we’ will stand firm against attempts to divide us etc, etc.

Rarely is there any attempt to understand or analyse the very specific and contingent motives, strategy or political  context that may behind even the most vicious acts of violence, let admit to any suggestion whatsoever that the actions of the government or the state may in some cases have a bearing on why such acts took place.

All this has become so predictable, so stale and banal that it is not surprising that the politicians who make such pronouncements sound as though they are reading from a script.  But rarely as this post-atrocity rhetoric sounded more hollow and meaningless than it has coming from the mouths of Turkish PM Recep Erdogan and his ministers in response to the savage and disgusting massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Ankara on Saturday that has so far killed 98 people and wounded more than 500.

We don’t know – and we may never know – the perpetrators of what is a crime against Turkish democracy and a crime against humanity.  It might have been  the dregs of some Turkish fascist organization like the Grey Wolves or a more recent ‘nationalist’ anti-Kurdish group. It might have been  ISIS/Daesh, acting on its own behest or as an instrument of some false flag operation directed by the Turkish ‘deep state’.

What we do know is that the response of the Turkish government has been manipulative, tricksy, deeply dishonest, cynical and deeply suspicious – pretty much everything you might expect from the Erdogan administration in fact.  Erdogan’s ministers have blamed ISIS, but they have also blamed the demonstrators themselves.  One minister called the demonstrators ‘provocateurs.’   Naturally the government has blamed ‘foreign intelligence services’ – an obvious reference to Syria suggesting that Erdogan may even use the massacre to further its Syrian ‘regime change’ program.

The government also had the gall to suggest that the perpetrators might be Kurds or members of the ‘far-left’ or Erdogan’s main political rivals, the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP).   Why would Kurds or the ‘far-left’ kill leftwing Kurdish demonstrators calling for an end to the new war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)? Why would the PKK blow up a demonstration calling for peace when it has just called a unilateral ceasefire?

No reason really, at least none that makes any sense.  Erdogan’s cronies have suggested that the HDP might have done it in order to present themselves as victims – a grossly cynical bizarre statement of the type that  Erdogan and his ministers are only too prone to making.

It makes far more sense for supporters of that war to attack people calling for an end to it, and some of these supporters are also supporters of the government that has wanted this war and deliberately provoked it.   It makes more sense to attack a demonstration attended by many members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party( HDP), the main threat to the hegemony of Erdogan’s ruling AKP.

All this certainly raises the question that the state played a role in facilitating the massacre and allowing it to happen.   Some demonstrators have raised the question why there were no security checks going into the square at Ankara, even though there usually are.  The Turkish police did act after the massacre however – to stop ambulances entering the square and pepper spraying people who were trying to call ambulances in.

The police also teargassed members of the HDP who attempted to lay carnations at the scene of the massacre.   The Turkish Ministry of Health has even denied there is a blood shortage in Ankara hospitals, even though survivors, relatives and health officials have been issuing calls for donations through social media.

And still this gangster-prime minister has the temerity to reach into terrorspeak and describe this ‘heinous’ attack as an attack on ‘our unity and our country’s peace.’

All of which is true.  There is no doubt that whoever did this wants civil war and civil strife in Turkey.   But Erdogan’s condemnation from a government that has done so much to promote both these things, not only inside Turkey but outside it, and that as late as last year was prepared to let Kobane fall to ISIS rather than allow the Kurds to save it.

In the face of this awful tragedy, it can only be hoped that Turkish civil society responds in the same way that the Spanish did when their government attempted to manipulate the Madrid train bombings to its own advantage.  Because whether Erdogan’s government was responsible for the Ankara massacre, or whether it has merely tried to use it to its own advantage, it has demonstrated once again that it does not deserve to govern, and that if it does, it will only take Turkey even further down the dark road that Erdogan the would-be sultan has already set out on.

 

Save a Refugee – Bomb ’em all to Hell

In less than a week, the British government has frantically changed its line on Europe’s refugee crisis like a twitchy gambler shuffling cards in the hope that the right one comes up.  First David Cameron rejected the notion that accepting more refugees was a ‘solution’ to the crisis, as if anybody had ever said it was.  Then, wrongfooted by an unlikely eruption of humanitarian fervour from the British tabloids, he agreed to take in a quota of 20,000 ‘vulnerable’ Syrian refugees over the next five years – though Syrian and other refugees already in Europe will not be allowed into the UK since that would only encourage others to follow them.

And now, with barely a pause for breath, Lord Snooty and His Pals are coolly plotting to transform the refugee crisis into a new casus belli in Syria and a justification for a new round of ‘humanitarian’ bombing against ISIS

That won’t be the end of it however, since Osborne warned at the weekend that ‘ You have got to deal with the problem at source which is this evil Assad regime and the Isis terrorists.’ Yesterday the creepy neocon former defense secretary Liam Fox – a man who has never seen a war he didn’t like – was on Channel 4 News calling for the creation of a no fly zone to enforce safe havens in Syria that would protect ‘vulnerable people’ from ISIS.

When Fox talks about protecting vulnerable people one can only stifle a hysterical giggle – coupled with a certain feeling of nausea.   This is the man who supported the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Libyan War,  Israel’s Gaza wars, and favoured military action against Iran.

These wars not only failed to protect ‘vulnerable people’, they also killed a great deal of them, even as they generated refugees in their millions; 4 million in Iraq; between 600,000 to 1 million in Libya; nearly four million in Afghanistan.  Such outcomes ought to cast some doubt over the notion that bombing can serve a humanitarian purpose, but Fox is not the man to ask such questions.

He would like to use British air power to fight ISIS and establish these havens, but since ISIS doesn’t have an airforce then someone on the ground will have to ensure such protection.  Who?  Well naturally it can’t be our boys, since even Fox isn’t dumb enough to believe that British troops would be welcomed in Syria.

Instead he suggested that ‘Arab countries’ might do the job.  That would be some of the Gulf states which provided ISIS with its start-up funds?   Perhaps some members of the coalition who are currently doing such grand work in Yemen?  How about Turkey, not an Arab country, but one which has nevertheless done so much to facilitate ISIS and many of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting ‘vulnerable people.’

Maybe the Kurds could do it, except that they aren’t strong enough, and anyway the Western states that praised their defense of Kobane last year are now in the throes of betraying them once again in order to keep Turkey on board the great anti-ISIS coalition.   Still why worry about the details?   After all, we never did before.  The main thing is to bomb, because bombing is always better than doing nothing, isn’t it?

The Sun certainly thinks so, and yesterday carried a picture of refugees arriving in Germany with the headline ‘ Blitz ’em to hell: Our Boys await order to destroy IS in Syria’ – a touching juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the limits to the Murdoch press’s humanitarian blip.

The Sun also assumes that a) bombing would protect ‘innocent civilians’ and b) that British air power could ‘destroy’ ISIS – something that months of bombing by the US-led coalition have failed to achieve.    Given the record of British military adventures over the last fifteen years, the government’s rush to bomb is alarming and almost mind-boggling for its cynicism and simplistic belief that if you just keep bombing someone, sooner or later it’ll all turn out right.

Osborne insists that ‘ You need a comprehensive plan for a more stable, peaceful Syria – a huge challenge of course, but we can’t just let that crisis fester.’  As Hugh Roberts argues in the LRB, Britain and its allies rejected the last political opportunity – admittedly slim – that might have helped demilitarize the Syrian conflict back in June 2012, when they scuppered Kofi Annan’s attempts to broker a political compromise at Geneva by insisting that Assad could not be part of it.

They did this because they were committed to a policy of ‘regime change’ that was driven by purely geopolitical calculations, even though it was often given a humanitarian rationale. This policy wanted more militarization not less, regardless of its impact on Syrian society. Recently-published Pentagon documents reveal that as early as August 2012, the US and its allies foresaw the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Syria as a strategic instrument that they would be able to use to topple Assad.

At a time when Western states were publicly supporting the notion of a ‘moderate opposition’, US intelligence agencies privately recognized that the ‘major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’ consisted of ‘ the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq’ – as part of an opposition that was supported by ‘The West, Gulf countries and Turkey.’

It is nonsensical to imagine that these same countries can now protect civilians or bring about a ‘stable, peaceful Syria’ by bombing the ‘Salafist principality’ they helped create.   On the contrary, such ‘havens’ will inevitably exacerbate the fragmentation of Syria, and they will also be used as bases to attack the regime – an option that was already being pursued in the first year of the conflict.

To point out this out does not mean that no one should do anything, or that external forces can be held entirely responsible for the catastrophe that has wrecked Syria.   Assad may not have seen himself as a tyrant when he inherited the family dynasty, but that is what he is, like all the Arab rulers who were challenged during the ‘Arab Spring’, including those that have been trying to overthrow him.

Syria was a tyranny when the Syrian army colluded with Christian militias in the Lebanese Civil War; when Hafez Assad participated in Operation Desert Storm; when US intelligence flew terrorist suspects off to Syria to have their feet beaten by Syrian security services.

Such a regime has no more right to rule than any of its counterparts, and the staggering violence that it has unleashed against its own population is evidence of its political and moral bankruptcy.  Nevertheless, in the short-term at least, it is difficult to see how ISIS can be defeated without it, because Syria has become a country in which only bad choices are available.

The immediate priority in both Syria and Iraq must be to defeat the fascistic ISIS, both militarily and politically, and prevent the two states from the complete collapse that would pave the way for indefinite warlordism and jihadism.  But that ultimately, must be the task of Iraqis and Syrians themselves, and will be dependent on a degree of political will that has so far been absent.

The foreign states that have done so much harm in Syria ought to commit themselves to that objective and use what powers they have to bring it about.

The question is whether they really want to, and it may be too late to do any of this.  The wars in Syria and Iraq may have to run their course, with all the devastation that involves, until there is very little left of either state in their present form.

That would be an absolute catastrophe, and it would generate a refugee crisis that will last for decades.   So we need to do anything we can to prevent it, but let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the current outpouring of public solidarity and empathy with refugees into believing that bombing is a solution to the horrors that are currently unfolding.

And let’s not think that there is anything ‘humanitarian’ about rushing into a bombing campaign to save refugees in order to stop refugees from coming to Europe, because there really isn’t.

John Kerry’s Moral Compass

The Imperium and its allies are preparing public opinion for their forthcoming bombing of Syria, and morality is the order of the day, as it must be, considering the very flimsy legal basis for this ‘intervention.’

So today we find John Kerry insisting that Syrian involvement in the Ghouta chemical weapons attack is ‘undeniable’, and delivering a stern lecture to anyone who has dared to suggest otherwise or criticized the West’s instrumentalisation of the attack as a casus belli.   According to Kerry:

‘Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.   What is before us today is real. And it is compelling.’

As one of those who has suggested that this attack might have been ‘contrived or fabricated’ I’m clearly in need of moral guidance, so I’m wondering who I should now turn to in search of it.   Should it be the al-Nusra front,  seven of whose members, according to the Turkish press in May, were arrested by police in Turkey’s Adana province in possession of sarin gas?

How about the ‘warlords with no interest in peace’, some of whom, according to Patrick Cockburn have forced 40,000 Syrian Kurds into Turkey over the last week, in what the United Nations has called ‘the biggest single refugee exodus of the war’?

No, I’m afraid I’ve drawn a blank there.   What about Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of the Saudi Arabian intelligence services, whose country has done so much to turn the Syrian rebellion into a civil war, and  who first informed Washington of the Ghouta attack last week, for reasons which no doubt have everything to do with Saudi concern for the Syrian people and not with its desire to rollback Iran?

Of course I could draw some inspiration from the United States government itself, whose military and intelligence officials, it has just been confirmed, once provided Saddam Hussein with satellite imagery, maps and intelligence that enabled him to attack Iran with sarin and mustard gas in four offensives during 1988.

Or more recently, before I begin searching my own conscience,  I could some lessons on exemplary moral conduct from the huge rise in cancer, miscarriages and birth defects in Fallujah and Basra, which local and international studies believe is connected to the use of depleted uranium weapons and the use of white phosphorus by American and British troops during another ‘moral’ war, whose tenth anniversary came and went this year without any acknowledgement of these events by the US government or mainstream media.

There was a time when Kerry might have had provided me with some inspiration,  when he was a witness at the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings on the Vietnam War.   In his Winter Soldier statement, Kerry powerfully evoked his experience as a Vietnam veteran, in which

‘We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.

We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of orientals. We watched the US falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts…’

Kerry had no doubt who was ultimately responsible for these events. ‘Where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership? ‘ he thundered then, ‘ We are here to ask where are McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatric, and so many others.’

He concluded that ‘they have left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching begin them in the sun in this country.’

Something similar could be said of Kerry, in his transformation from critic of imperial violence into a spokesman for it.  This is the man who only recently told the Palestinians ‘not to act adversely’ in response to the latest settlement expansion with which Israel began the current ‘peace talks.’

Now he wants to bomb another group of ‘orientals’ in order to make his boss look ‘credible.’   And until I hear anything to the contrary, I  must continue to insist that the West’s coming intervention has everything to do with regime change and nothing to do with protecting anyone,   and I don’t need the Secretary of State to tell me where my moral compass is when he clearly no longer has one of his own.