This piece was written for the UK Stop the War Coalition’s website.
It may seem wearily familiar — a rush to war, disputed intelligence dossiers and a determined effort to proceed without even UN Security Council authorisation.
There are echoes of Iraq ten years ago, and it casts a long shadow upon the mounting political crisis over moves to bomb Syria.
But we should not be weary or resigned. The combination of domestic weakness and declining authority in the Middle East (both consequences of the Iraq disaster) means that we are at a moment when what we as a movement do can have a major impact.
The compelling arguments against war on Syria are well made on the Stop the War site and are finding their way into the media and wider public discussion, not only from anti-war journalists and sympathetic public figures.
Still, for many, especially those hundreds of thousands of us who marched against the Iraq war in 2003, the question recurs: can we do anything about this impending disaster?
For lots of us, the moral case is reason enough to act. But throwing ourselves single-mindedly into building the movement against this intervention is not only the morally right thing to do; it can also have direct political effect. Not through wishful thinking, but based on grasping the moment we are in.
There is great uncertainty in Washington over how to proceed. Barack Obama’s talk of “red lines” over the use of chemical weapons has boxed him into a corner of threatening swift military action against Syria, while his generals warn that there is no strategic aim or clarity over what might be achieved.
The president who demanded two years ago that Bashar al-Assad stand down is now at pains to say that this bloody intervention will not be aimed at regime-change and will not lead to further operations in support of one side in the Syrian conflict.
Leave aside the fact that the US, its Gulf allies and Turkey are already heavily intervening. The point remains that in their official rationale the US and British governments are saying the purpose of bombing and maiming in Syria will be a “non-intervention” in terms of political outcome. The absurdity serves only to exacerbate all the establishment doubts about the unintended consequences of pouring fuel on the fire.
Syria’s allies — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — are also, of course, intervening. Two years on from the revolutionary uprising, Syria is now a battleground for proxy forces and competing great power and regional interests. There have been long and at times bitter debates about the struggle in Syria. But for the Left, whatever the position in that debate, what Obama, Cameron and Hollande propose now is not even purported to bring the victory of progressive forces in the country. If they are not claiming that, there is no reason for any of us to invest this bombing with moral worth or to waver in opposing it — in deed as well as word.
The UN route — gaining explicit support for military action from the Security Council — is blocked. The hubris of Western governments over Libya and the increasingly Cold War rhetoric against Vladimir Putin put paid to that, notwithstanding Russia’s own strategic interests in Syria and the region.
That leaves Britain and France, which both pressed for the Libya adventure. (Who talks of the success of that now: indeed Bernard-Henri Lévy, the clown-philosopher who urged the bombing of Libya, was told he could not visit Tripoli earlier this year as his Jewishness would make his hosts a target for jihadi attack.)
The France-UK-US (FUKUS) axis faces an extraordinary dilemma. Underpinning it is the weakening of the imperial architecture in the Middle East and the ongoing upheavals in the region. These are of epochal significance and will not be ended by the counter-revolutionary coup in Egypt or the debilitating civil war in Syria.
And there are further major differences with ten years ago. We are five years into an economic crisis. In parts of Europe it has produced big upsurges of social struggle. Everywhere it has weakened the legitimacy of governments and political elites — Obama’s included. It is the context for the residue of the enormous movement against the Iraq war in 2003.
On the anniversary of the start of that war there was much reflection on what the movement achieved — after all, Bush and Blair went to war anyway. While we did not stop the invasion of Iraq, the government launching a war against the will of its citizens reduced its legitimacy. Coupled with the destruction of Iraq, and its plundering for profit, Western governments have even less authority in the minds of the public now than then.
One look at the opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic over whether to bomb Syria shows that. There is very widespread opposition to military action. Both major parties in Britain backed the Iraq war. At the time of writing, Labour is at least partially opposed to bombing Syria.
It’s easy to take that for granted. But in most western countries at most times since the Second World War there has been clear public support for governments at war. The extent of anti-war sentiment, even if for most of the time most of it is passive, is a historic gain from the movement against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which went on in Britain also to oppose Israel’s wars on Gaza and on Lebanon and to mount a sustained argument against intervention in Libya and Syria.
That’s not a point for smug self-satisfaction. Hundreds of thousands have died. It is a salient political factor now with which this government must reckon in the coming days over deciding whether to bomb Syria. It will play out in the coming months if it does bomb, with destabilising consequences, or if it does not, with fatally shattered prestige.
The problem of weakening hegemony in the Middle East and shrunken political capital at home has circumscribed Western policy for some time. Now it is immensely concentrated — nowhere more so than in Britain.
Cameron’s arrogance and dilemma
For over 18 months Cameron and William Hague have tried to play the hard men over Syria, calling for greater action at international gatherings and threatening Damascus with other people’s F-16s. Now, the old Etonian’s arrogance has made Britain a weak link in the shaky FUKUS chain.
At the start of this week Cameron was strutting the airwaves pressing for immediate bombing. By Thursday he had been forced into a tactical retreat — though the intention to press ahead is clear. Washington, too, rowed back a little to give Cameron, facing potential parliamentary defeat, a lifeline.
Officials mooted that the date for bombing could be pushed back to the middle of next week. If anyone thinks they are in control of events, consider that on that timescale US and British planes will be bombing a Russian ally just as Obama and Cameron sit down in St Petersburg at the G20 summit, hosted by Putin.
The call for restraint by the UN’s Ban Ki-moon hardened Labour’s opposition to the government. On Wednesday it went from reluctant support for the government to tabling its own amendment in the parliamentary debate on Thursday. That amendment placed significant obstacles on the path to military action. But it said only that the UN Security Council must be allowed to consider and vote on the weapons inspectors’ report, not that a Security Council authorisation was necessary before Labour would support action.
Nevertheless, Labour MPs and others report that they are swayed by both the deep divisions in the political class and state structures over action, and by the mounting public opposition. Diane Abbott’s political stock soared sharply when she said she would resign from the Labour frontbench if the party rushed into war.
The emergency demonstration called by Stop the War in London on Wednesday drew 1,000 people, extremely significant at short notice and in the bank holiday week.
It seems impossible now for the government to avoid a second parliamentary vote before bombing, and its own motion on Thursday in effect conceded that.
These are not trivial parliamentary games. They are the actual working out of the impasse of the government’s position. They mean that MPs who were expecting to be sunning themselves this weekend will now be in Britain, subject to intense, contradictory pressures.
They mean that what was meant to be a lightning strike on Syria this week is now prolonged even before it begins. A question that was of concern for only a minority in Britain is now at the centre of national politics and life — should we support Cameron, should be bomb or not bomb, can we do anything about it?
A major public debate has erupted way beyond the circles and social media that we as activists use to talk with one another. The debate is open. Our opponents are an out of touch government that is inflicting deep social suffering on millions of people, most of whom declare that they are alienated from the official political parties.
The government is a coalition. Its majority depends on Lib Dem MPs, many of whom owe their seats to the anti-war posture the party took in 2003. They are particularly vulnerable to pressure, which in this instance means public opinion marshalled and concentrated into action and political engagement.
There are serious divisions in the Tory ranks too — usually reflective of foreign policy and military establishment concerns. Nevertheless, a move by anti-war MP Jeremy Corbyn and others of the Left earlier this year to force the government to declare that it would seek parliamentary approval for any strike on Syria succeeded in winning support from Tory rebels.
A principled mass movement, acting intelligently, can drive a wedge deeper into the Tory ranks as well as stiffen the position of Labour MPs.
Mass movement — unity of purpose
Action now can make a difference. It requires taking the clear anti-war arguments which Stop the War is promoting and which are voiced by many others, including the Daily Mirror, deep into British society. All movements need activists, but we cannot simply be a movement of activists. We have to aim to be a mass movement of people who can be stirred by this question.
The fact that figures such as Peter Hain MP who supported the Iraq war are now strongly against bombing Syria is an indication that our anti-war argument can reach into new and broad layers. That feeling needs to be focused through public protest and through inundating MPs in order to tip the balance. There are many forms of action. Over the coming days the job is to hone them to a single point that will be felt in parliament and the government as they mull how to proceed.
There is every chance that we can play a big role in shifting the debate. What if we do not and they manage to press ahead anyway? Well, our efforts will have been far from futile.
First, whatever the blithe talk of a limited three-day bombing with no fallout, the truth is that there will be major repercussions throughout the Middle East if they do go ahead. The only question is how great they will be. They will certainly mark a new phase in which the pressure for further action will intensify and with it the necessity of a strong, united movement of opposition, as well as solidarity with genuine progressive forces in the region.
Second, this is not about something happening far away to other people. It is about the direction of politics and society in Britain. The outcome of the next days and weeks will impact on the scale of opposition to the Coalition’s assaults on the mass of people at home.
A government weakened by defeat of its foreign policy, or even by its curtailment, is going to find it harder to deal with the protests in defence of the NHS, the strikes by public sector workers and the developing social resistance to its austerity policies.
Many of us have supported Stop the War or taken part in its mobilisations over the years. Quite naturally there has been ebb and flow, reflecting events and the possibility at any one time of achieving results. We’ve also had many healthy debates as the disaster of Western policy in the Middle East and the War on Terror has unfolded.
Now is a time to throw ourselves fully into this upswing of the movement — inundating MPs, taking to the streets on Saturday, getting ourselves into the media — mainstream, new and social — everywhere persuading friends, colleagues and family that we need to take a stand, and that by doing so we can make a difference.
There are protests against military action across Australia this weekend.