Suddenly, everyone is talking about Syria. Saturday’s demonstration will be in solidarity with all refugees, but a Syrian refugee is one of the key organisers. Campaigners from the Syria Solidarity Movement UK and Stop the War Coalition are among those involved in the planning, along with many other organisations. Everyone should welcome this commitment to unity against the government’s treatment of refugees and other migrants.
However, as the UK government and mainstream media attempt to divert public sympathy for Syrian refugees into a panic about “jihadists” and support for bombing campaigns and drone killings of British citizens in Syria, it is important that we have solidarity and anti-war movements fit for purpose.
As part of an ongoing discussion, Mark Boothroyd, who was a founding member of the Syria Solidarity Movement UK, argues that the mainstream anti-war movement has failed Syrian revolutionaries struggling against a brutal dictatorship.
The beginning of the Arab Spring in 2010-2011 will be remembered as one the defining periods of the early part of this century. Simultaneous protest movements developed across the entire Arab world calling for freedom, democracy and social justice, blossoming into full blown revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. The toppling of not one but several decades old dictatorships through the active movement of tens of millions of people remains an incredibly inspiring event which gave hope to so many who struggle for human freedom around the world.
The Arab Spring threw the entire established order in the Middle East into flux. It greatly unsettled the US, Russia and Israel as their preferred dictators were toppled or put under immense pressure by popular protest. It gave hope to millions who saw a real possibility of the end of tyrannical rule across the Arab world. But it also disorientated the anti-war movement, built in an earlier period where US/UK aggression, not popular revolution, was the main factor driving events.
The main organisations and activists responsible for mobilising millions in opposition to war and in solidarity with those in the Middle East affected by imperialism, remained passive throughout these momentous events.
While the leadership of Stop the War Coalition was initially supportive of the Arab revolts when they toppled US-backed dictators like Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, when the revolts spread to the regimes of Qaddafi and Assad – Cold War era opponents of the West – the enthusiastic support began to cool.
A layer of activists in the movement saw these countries as opposed to imperialism, so-called “anti-imperialist” regimes that were part of an “axis of resistance” which merited them support, regardless of their brutality. This was despite the fact that all dictatorships in the region were dealing with US/EU imperialism; Assad’s regime tortured prisoners for the CIA during the Bush Presidency, while Qaddafi’s regime, in partnership with the EU, built detention camps in Libya to detain migrants and prevent them crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.
The revolt initially threw the plans of the Western imperialist powers into disarray; the US was still praising Mubarak while millions marched in the streets calling for his downfall, the French government was split over how to deal with Ben Ali, while then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton green lighted vicious repression in Bahrain to put down the uprising.
Eventually they rallied and tried to ride the revolutionary wave, taking advantage of the turmoil created by the revolts. The first target for intervention was Libya. Stop The War called protests against western intervention, painfully alongside pro-regime figures who were supporting crackdowns on protesters. These protests proved ineffectual and the US, UK and France bombed Libya, disabling Qaddafi’s air force and provided arms to the rebels. Libya’s revolutionaries held out against Qaddafi’s armed forces in Misrata and Benghazi, organised an uprising in the capital and took control by the end of August 2011. Qaddafi was captured and executed in October 2011.
In reaction to this, the Russian and Iranian governments stepped up financing and arming the Syrian regime to ensure it did not suffer a similar fate. The Syrian revolt against the Assad regime is now in its fifth year, the death toll from the conflict has surpassed 330,000 with over 1 million wounded, 215,000 are still detained in regime prisons, 200,000 are missing, and between 650,000 and 1,000,000 people are under starvation siege by the regime in rebel towns and cities. Bombings of civilian areas by the regime are a daily occurrence, 4.5 million Syrians are refugees, and 8 million, almost half the remaining population, are internally displaced.
In all this time there was no direct western intervention in Syria against Assad. No bombs were dropped on Syria by Western powers until mid-2014, the fourth year of the revolution, and these were targeted at ISIS, not the regime. Not a single bomb has been dropped on regime military installations by the Coalition air force.
All the hype and warnings notwithstanding, Western aid to the rebels has been very limited. By mid-2013 the Free Syrian Army had received only $12 million of a promised $60 million of aid from the US , and been denied access to weaponry by the EU. The aid they did receive was only non-lethal aid consisting of food, medicine and vehicles. From 2012 onwards the CIA was involved in monitoring weapons shipments to Syria; its role was to stop them receiving the anti-air missiles and heavy weaponry that could have neutralised Assad’s airforce and armour and hastened the downfall of the regime.
When the US did finally begin to arm and train rebels in 2014, it was tightly controlled to a ridiculous extent. In contrast the regime has $3.5 billion worth of contracts for arms from Russia, and loans to pay for it. With Syria’s domestic weapons industry too small to produce enough arms to sustain a protracted conflict, the imperialist intervention which has kept the conflict going and maintains it to this day is from Russia.
The revolutions exposed that for many in the anti-war movement, opposition to imperialist intervention only extended to opposition to imperialist intervention by the UK, US, EU, and their allies. There was no opposition to the imperialist actions of the Russian government, or the crucial support given by the Iranian government to the Assad regime.
This was defended by Stop the War national officer John Rees on the grounds that “the main enemy is at home”, and that US imperial power was still the over determining factor in the Middle East. As a British based organisation Stop the War’s role was just to oppose the imperialist actions of the British government.
Too many leading figures in the British anti-war movement chose to view all these revolutions through their relation to the US/UK and its intentions. This approach erased the agency of the oppressed Syrian people engaged in struggle with the regime, and gave no responsibility to the role of imperialist powers like Russia in propping up the dictatorship. It served to obscure the complex reality of the multi-polar world system, split between competing imperialist powers, with no single dominant power overwhelmingly determining the course of events.
Instead of analysing the actual relationships of regional and global powers that were thrown into flux by the Arab Spring, the approach of the anti-war movement was shaped by a framework of Cold War power relations, massaged to fit leftist prejudices and domestic alliances developed during opposition to the “War on Terror” and Iraq War.
Syrian and pro-revolution Arab voices have been marginalised, while outright apologists for the Assad regime like George Galloway have been central to developing it and propagating the position of Stop the War. The contributions of supporters of the revolution like Syrian Marxist Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Syrian human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh or Palestinian intellectual and former Knesset member Dr Azmi Bishara were ignored.
Meanwhile, across Syria people held weekly Friday protests, asking for solidarity and support in their struggle. These hundreds of thousands of voices were ignored. Every week tens of thousands of Syrian activists voted in online polls to choose the main slogan for the Friday demonstrations. Some called for intervention, some for weapons, many asked simply for help, and to spread awareness of their struggle. Reading through the slogans you can chart the disillusionment of the protestors as their calls for solidarity went unanswered:
20: July 29, 2011 – “Your Silence Is Killing Us”
26: September 9, 2011 – “International Protection”
38: December 12, 2011 – “The Buffer Zone is Our Demand”
51: March 2, 2012 – “Providing Weapons for the Free Army”
53: March 16, 2012 – “Immediate Military Intervention”
67: June 22, 2012 – “Governments Let Us Down, Where Are the People?”
74: August 10, 2012 – “Arm Us with Anti-Aircraft Weapons”
82: October 5, 2012 – “We Want Weapons, not Statements”
91: December 7, 2012 – “No to Peacekeeping Forces in Syria”
99: February 1, 2013 – “The International Community Are Partners to Al-Assad in His massacres”
128: August 23, 2013 – “The Terrorist Bashar Kills Civilians with Chemical Weapons While the World Watches”
131: September 13, 2013 – “The Murderer Is Under the International Community’s Protection”
146: December 27, 2013 – “Death Barrels with International License”
206: February 20, 2015 – “The World Failed us, God Give Us Victory”
When the reality of the Syrian revolution did not fit with the frameworks and alliances that dominated the British anti-war movement, its demands were simply ignored. A narrative was constructed where the US and British governments’ desire to topple Assad was presented as the main threat to Syria, in the process rendering Syrian revolutionaries guilty-by-association of a political crime.
The 2013 Vote: Obama’s red herring
A decisive turning point in the Syrian struggle were the votes against intervention by the British Parliament and US Congress in August and September 2013. The votes were to decide whether to intervene militarily following the regime massacre of over 1400 people with sarin gas in the Damascus suburbs and Eastern Ghouta on the night of 21 August.
Use of chemical weapons by the regime was supposedly Obama’s “red line”, justifying intervention. In preparation for intervention, Cameron put the vote to Britain’s parliament, and lost narrowly. Rather than intervene immediately, the Obama administration put the decision to a vote in Congress. This was also lost and no intervention took place.
Instead, on the recommendation of Russia (and as it was admitted later, Israel) a deal was done with the Assad regime for it to hand over its chemical weapons in exchange for no military strikes.
This decision was hailed as a great victory for the anti-war movement. Stop the War took credit for having stopped the bombing of Syria, claiming that strong anti-war sentiment was a major factor in persuading MPs to vote against intervention. This was only part of the truth.
Just two years before those same MPs had voted to authorise military strikes on Libya, despite strong anti-war sentiment. The idea that imperialist States will halt or alter important geopolitical decisions like military intervention simply based on public opinion, is not credible.
The response of the French governments to the Ghouta sarin attack is rarely mentioned, but instructive. After the Ghouta massacre French and American military planners had begun working on plans for co-ordinated strikes on regime military targets. Despite the UK parliament no vote, on 30 August the French government ordered their war planes to prepare for military strikes on Syrian regime targets. The war planes were waiting, in expectation of an American attack, when Obama personally contacted President Hollande to inform him he would not attack without Congress’ approval. The French government decided not to intervene without American support.
Making the overthrow of a government dependent on a vote are not the typical actions of warmongering imperialist powers. Syrian activists on the ground were acutely aware of what this meant. Qusai Zakarya, spokesperson for Moadamiyah, one of the Damascus towns hit by the sarin attack reported:
“I felt so disappointed… I learned enough to know that when an American president wants to make a military strike, he just do it without telling anyone. We seen it in Iraq, we seen it in Afghanistan, we seen it in Somalia, we seen it all over the world.”
Go forward two years, and it has been revealed that 20 British pilots have been flying sorties over Syria with the US air force. That the government was willing to have British pilots clandestinely bombing Syria shows their willingness to defy parliament when it’s expedient. There are deep rooted imperial interests, and not just public opinion, which has shaped military intervention, or its absence, in the region.
Sections of the US and British ruling class had good reasons to think the greatest threat to their interests in Syria was not the Assad regime, but the popular revolution. Following the votes in Parliament and Congress, anything which would have hastened Assad’s demise and allowed the popular movement to take power has been systematically avoided, at great cost to the Syrian people.
We should not support US or UK intervention in Syria, but we must recognise the tragic irony that what has been claimed as a victory by the anti-war movement has only been a victory for the Assad regime. Assad had tested Obama’s “red line”, killing over 1400 people, and had received approval to continue killing by conventional means. His regime did just that, subjecting Aleppo to a daily barrel bomb campaign which killed over 2,500 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and turned the rebel held half of the city into a ghost town.
This has been the actual imperialist strategy of the US and UK over Syria: let the country bleed by depriving the popular revolt of the weapons and support it needs to win, hoping that exhaustion and the devastation caused by vicious repression forces the rebellious population to accept a political settlement that preserves the regime’s state apparatus.
The anti-war movement has not even been consistent in its opposition to imperialist intervention. The only large scale activity Stop the War organised around Syria was the “Hands off Syria” demonstration in August 2013. As British-Syrian journalist Salwa Amor writes: “Holding placards that say ‘No intervention and hands off Syria’ appears to Syrians that you are on Russia’s side” – when Syrians are facing a dictatorship backed up by imperial intervention from Russia.
Meanwhile, the movement has been largely silent and organised few public protests against the ongoing bombing of Syria by the US-led Coalition against ISIS. These bombings, ostensibly to aid the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against ISIS, have also aided the regime. Bombs were dropped by the coalition in and around Deir Ezzour City, where there are only regime and ISIS forces on the frontlines. The open collaboration this indicates between the regime and the Coalition has not warranted a mention by Stop the War.
Even when coalition bombings have killed civilians and targeted camps for internally displaced persons, there have been no protests. On 11 August the US-led Coalition bombed Atmeh refugee camp in Idlib province, targeting a weapons factory run by the Free Syrian Army aligned Jaysh Al-Sunna faction. The bombing killed 25 civilians including 5 girls from the same family. This is one of dozens of air strikes which have targeted Syrian rebel groups over the past year, while not a single regime military installation has been targeted in over a year of US-led Coalition attacks. None of these bombings have merited protests by the anti-war movement.
Another inconsistency is the different approach to Saudi Arabia and Iran by the mainstream anti-war movement. Stop the War has rightly criticised the bombing of Yemen by the Saudi Air Force. But this raises the question of why its leadership cannot criticise Iranian intervention in Syria.
The Iranian government’s involvement in Syria is well documented, coming in the form of enormous financial aid through loans, oil and asset deals, and military aid with as many as 6,000 Iranian Revolution Guard Corp troops and military advisors in Syria. Alongside these troops, Iranian government funding and training aided the formation of the National Defence Force, a 150,000 strong loyalist militia. Iranian government funding also paid for thousands of Afghani mercenaries to bolster the regime’s numbers. Many of these Afghanis are poor refugees and migrants in Iran who were recruited with promises of citizenship and a regular salary, and sent directly to the frontlines.
The rationale appears to be geopolitical: Saudi Arabia is seen as an ally of the US and UK, while Iran is not. For those people suffering at the hands of Iranian intervention in Syria, the distinction means nothing. Moreover, alliances between imperial powers and client dictatorships change (and are currently changing). Meanwhile, the mainstream British anti-war movement’s approach just reeks of hypocrisy, and undermines the principles of opposition to imperial and colonial agendas that it ought to stand for.
There is a further tragedy. One of the anti-war movement’s main successes during the opposition to the “war on terror” was that it was built with and within the Muslim community, it defended them against racism, and provided an organised outlet for angry and alienated British Muslim youth who wanted to take action against the massive injustices they witnessed abroad, and faced at home.
This outlet has not exist over Syria. The mainstream anti-war movement’s stance has alienated a large part of the Muslim community which is actively and heavily involved in supporting the Syrian revolution and the civilian population affected by the war.
While the majority of people in Britain have only been shown the occasional glimpse of regime atrocities, there has been no filter between Muslim communities and the slaughter. Broadcast nightly on Al-Jazeera, circulated on Youtube, spoken about in mosque sermons, full exposure to the horrors has galvanised thousands to action.
Many British Muslims piled their energy into community and mosque lead humanitarian relief work, aid collections and convoys. These efforts have been enormous, with millions of pounds collected annually, and up to 12 aid convoys a year going to Syria from Britain with ambulances, food, medical supplies and clothes.
As the situation became more dire and bloody in Syria, and in the absence of a political mass movement to pour their energies into, other British Muslims joined the armed struggle. A duty of Islamic solidarity towards Syrians was felt personally by many, who couldn’t ignore the sectarian atrocities they witnessed daily via social media. Many initially joined Free Syrian Army or Islamic brigades. With the rise of Islamic State, it’s targeting of Muslims in the West with propaganda and its international jihadist ideology providing a justification for volunteers, many alienated Muslim youth flocked to it. A phenomenon seen previously in Iraq and Afghanistan, “foreign jihadists” became a global issue over Syria.
The absence of most anti-war activists from solidarity campaigns with the Syrian revolution meant they couldn’t advance the single clearest argument about ISIS: that its rise was due to devastating and barbaric government repression of the popular revolution, and the isolation and abandonment of the Syrian people by the world’s governments.
In a Stop the War article against the bombing of Syria and Iraq as a solution to problem of ISIS, there was no mention at all of the Assad regime’s violence, of the relentless bombardment of towns and cities which has killed tens of thousands, driven millions of Syrians to flee and become refugees, crippled the oppositions ability to govern, and created the conditions of desperate poverty, lawlessness and oppression in which ISIS has grown.
This failure can also be seen in the way Stop the War has written about the Syrian refugee crisis, saying only that Syrian refugees are fleeing civil war, and not mentioning Assad or his regime’s role in continuing the slaughter for 5 years. Tragically, this rhetoric has fed into the racist discourse about what is happening in Syria. With no mention of the civil opposition, no condemnation of Assad, and the maligning of rebels as western-backed jihadists, there has been little challenge to the dominant mainstream narrative that Syria’s revolution had become a sectarian war between a “secular” government and “western-backed” extremists, rather than a revolutionary struggle that militarised in the face of barbaric repression, and which still struggles to this day despite all the force that has been deployed against it.
As an example, here is a paragraph from an article published on the Stop the War website in April 2014:
“Syria too is rather baffling. We were and are told that radical Islamic terror groups pose the greatest threat to our peace, security and our ‘way of life’ in the West. That Al-Qaeda and other such groups need to be destroyed: that we needed to have a relentless ‘War on Terror’ against them. Yet in Syria, our leaders have been siding with such radical groups in their war against a secular government which respects the rights of religious minorities, including Christians.
When the bombs of Al-Qaeda or their affiliates go off in Syria and innocent people are killed there is no condemnation from our leaders: their only condemnation has been of the secular Syrian government which is fighting radical Islamists and which our leaders and elite media commentators are desperate to have toppled”
It is deeply disturbing that campaigners can organise conferences against Islamophobia, but see no contradiction with carrying this material on their websites. To lump all Syrians resisting the regime into the camp of “Al-Qaeda or their affiliates” or “radical Islamists” simply echoes the anti-Muslim racism heard so often from proponents of the “War on Terror”; that any Muslim or Islamic organisation taking up arms against oppression or dictatorship is “Al-Qaeda” and a terrorist.
Stop the War is looked to by tens of thousands of activists in Britain as the leading voice on issues of war and imperialism. Articles like this have greatly shaped their understanding of what is happening in Syria. When even the largest anti-war organisation has done no solidarity work for Syrians, and actually propagates this racist narrative about their revolution, is it unconnected that until recently public opinion has been so viciously turned against Syrian refugees and the Syrian revolution? Opinion polls earlier this year showed 48% of those surveyed saying refugees should be turned away. Demonstrations such as the one planned this Saturday show a promising counter-trend, but it is clear the government is seeking ways to divert this mood into support for military actions against “jihadists”.
International solidarity and anti-imperialism
There was a different course that could have been taken. The anti-war movement could have responded to the uprisings of 2011, by moving beyond narrowly focused, selectively anti-intervention campaigning, to building international solidarity with the new revolutionary movements in the Middle East. Organisations such as Stop the War could have used their many groups across Britain to organise solidarity protests for the Arab Spring, to tour Tunisia, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian revolutionaries round universities and communities.
The pro-revolution Syrian community protested every single week in London for the first three years of the revolt, before exhaustion and disillusionment set in. The wider anti-war movement could have lent its activists and networks to help with these efforts, and supported the fundraising and aid collections for Syria. Solidarity protests and awareness raising campaigns could have challenged the mainstream narrative about the revolution, and mobilised much needed support for the democratic civil opposition pursuing non-violent resistance to the regime.
Exemplary solidarity work has been carried out by some; Dr David Nutt has travelled to Aleppo multiple times to perform emergency surgery on the wounded. Salford cabby Alan Henning joined his Muslim co-workers in driving aid convoys to Syria, until he was tragically murdered by ISIS for his solidarity work. Hundreds of people, Muslim and non-Muslim have travelled to Syria to volunteer with relief efforts, driving ambulances, distributing aid, teaching in refugee camps or running clinics for the wounded. This all took place outside the framework of the anti-war movement, with no support from its organisations.
Assisting these efforts this would have drawn in a whole new generation of activists into the anti-war movement. Young people inspired by the Arab Spring, and especially young Muslims radicalised by the revolutions and mass movements for freedom who now had a clear progressive alternative to nihilistic terrorism or Islamic armed resistance movements.
Combining international solidarity with principled and consistent anti-imperialist politics could have rebuilt the anti-war movement in a new form, with a new generation of activists able to take forward the international struggle for freedom, against war and oppression in all its forms.
Instead the anti-war movement stood aside. This stance will have consequences for years to come, in Britain and in the Middle East. The forsaking of Syrians, and resulting rise of ISIS has created the perfect bogeyman for further attacks on civil liberties, and reinvigorated anti-Muslim racism. It has destroyed the political opposition to intervention among the general public, with 60% supporting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The legacy of the war will last for decades. There are millions of Syrian children who are living in refugee camps, who have missed years of crucial education, and have had to endure terrible poverty and horrific sectarian violence. They’ve grown up watching their country being destroyed while the world has remained silent. A deep well of bitterness has been sunk, which will take many decades to dry up, and in the meantime will be a ready source of recruits for violent reactionary movements.
The damage has been done by what Stop the War has said and done over more than four years of brutal war in Syria. The Syrian community protested at the Stop the War annual event in 2013 demanding they protest against Assad’s violence and support the revolution. These pleas fell on deaf ears. There has been no change in Stop the War policy. They still hold meetings against the bombing of Syria with no Syrians on the platform and no mention of the regime’s violence.
Those who are active in the anti-war movement, or count themselves as supporters, must do what they can to alter this practice. If they cannot change the Stop the War Coalition, they must change their own practice, and build new movements of international solidarity so that no peoples are abandoned as the Syrian people have been these past four and half years.
Join the demonstration in Solidarity with Refugees this Saturday. Assemble 12 noon on Park Lane.