Nick Evans reports from last night’s protest in London against the bombing of Syria
Today, the House of Commons will be asked again to vote on bombing Syria. The UK is already bombing Iraq, and Syrians are already being bombed by the Assad regime, by Russia, by the US, by France. The UK has also carried out airstrikes on Syria, but Cameron has held off seeking formal parliamentary ratification of an expansion of Britain’s bombing campaign from Iraq into Syria until now.
On the eve of the vote, approximately 4,000 people joined the Stop the War Coalition’s emergency protest on Parliament Square to oppose the bombing of Syria. This was larger than last Saturday’s demonstration, despite being called at very short notice. After a series of speeches by members of the Stop the War Coalition, CND, the SNP, the Green Party and the Labour Party, the protestors marched first to Tory Party HQ and then to Labour Party HQ to demand MPs vote against bombing Syria.
The speakers were united in their condemnation of the logic that bombing stops terrorism, of the logic that bombing can happen without the loss of civilian lives, and of the logic that adding British airstrikes can in any way help the Syrian people or make Britain safer. Many of the speakers recalled the mass mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2003, and the moral responsibility that MPs who voted for that war should feel for the cycle of violence that has followed. Others spoke of the attacks on civil liberties and intensifying Islamophobia here in Britain. There were big cheers for speakers such as Caroline Lucas who spoke out against the government’s shocking refugee policy.
Particular anger was reserved for Hilary Benn, who voted for the Iraq war in 2003, who has continued to defend his decision to do so, and who will be making a case in support of British airstrikes in Syria tonight. There was bitterness that the son of the former chair of the Stop the War Coalition should play this role, and those protesting called on Labour MPs to follow the example of Jeremy Corbyn and the late Tony Benn, rather than Hilary.
This was not the only cause for bitterness last night, though. No Syrian was given a platform to speak against the bombing of their country. Syrians opposed to both Assad and ISIS have spoken out passionately against the current bombing of their country by the US-led coalition, as well as reminding the world they have already been facing bombardment by Russia and Assad. Their voices were not heard. There were Syrians on the demonstration, with the flags of the revolution, but a regime flag was allowed greater prominence next to the stage. Not one speaker mentioned Assad, although Weyman Bennett, speaking on behalf of Stand Up to Racism did make the single oblique reference of the evening to the bombardment of Syria carried out by the regime over the last five years.
This matters as a point of principle, and as a basic requirement of solidarity to the Syrian people resisting Assad. But it also weakens the movement against the bombing of Syria. When speakers on anti-war platforms continue to dismiss the non-ISIS opposition to Assad as irrelevant, or imperialist stooges, or as no different from ISIS, they drive Syrians away from the anti-war movement, and contribute to the Islamophobia that justifies attacks on Muslims in Britain and air strikes abroad.
The demonstrations are growing, which is a relief. But the anti-war movement needs to change its tune if it wants to stop not only the bombing of Syria, but the bombing of Iraq, and the growing racism against migrants and Muslims here in Britain.