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..