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The Syria vote leaves us in the anti-war movement with questions to answer

The case for bombing had 70,000 holes in it - but we failed to make it, argues Michael Chessum. 

Last night, as the second consecutive demonstration rallied outside parliament to oppose the bombing campaign in Syria, both sides were going through their final motions. The anti-war movement had the arguments and growing support but was ultimately powerless to prevent the bombing, while Cameron focussed in the last few days not on convincing the public, but on nailing down the parliamentary arithmetic. In the end, thanks to the determination of some members of the shadow cabinet, Britain has gone to war with Isil in Syria.  

And yet this war is clearly not just about defeating the Islamic State. The sudden rush to war may have been prompted by the Paris bombings, but nothing has changed on the ground between those atrocities and now. There is still no real strategy or end game to the bombing campaign, and no militarily reliable or politically palatable ground force that can use the air support to dislodge Isil.

For an effective strategy against ISIS, Cameron could have focussed on cutting off the Islamic State’s supply routes through the Gulf States and taking to task Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region, Turkey, which has also been funnelling money to ISIS and bombing the Kurdish forces which are fighting it. The government could have supported the Kurds, rather than continuing to persecute them at Turkey’s behest. Instead, Isil is going to get exactly what it wants: a further cycle of violence in which the west is directly culpable. Another beneficiary of the action will be Assad, the same dictator whose regime created the conditions for the rise of Isil, and is responsible for far more civilian deaths.

What this war is really about is power – and perhaps even more worrying than the backlash or the immediate and inevitable civilian casualties is the geo-political context. America and its allies are not the only ones intervening in this conflict, and the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military is bound to be the first of many confrontations between major nuclear powers. Many critics of Cameron’s march to war have accused the government of simply repeating the mistakes of Iraq.  This is wrong: Cameron is making similar mistakes, but in an altogether more dangerous and volatile situation.

But the failure to live up to the gravity of the situation is clearly not confined to Cameron’s government. It is not new for the Labour Party to be divided on foreign policy. For over a century, the party has at its far ends contained both an anti-war left wing and another tendency whose attitude to interventionism and imperialism does not, in spite of its social democratic domestic policy, differ that much from that of the Conservatives.  What is surprising, given the dangers posed by the war and the lack of a coherent case for it, is that there was not more active public opposition to the bombing campaign.

Anti-war movements are most effective when they organise on a broad basis – not run by single-issue professional anti-war campaigners, but embedded in communities and social movements, and in solidarity with progressive forces in other countries. That is the spirit in which the mass movement against the Iraq War mobilised.

For a time, it has been tempting to imagine that the mass anti-war sentiment garnered in 2003, the biggest street movement in Britain’s history, had somehow transfused into a new common sense among the public. But while Cameron and other drivers of the bombing policy do not enjoy enthusiastic public support, the British anti-war movement has also lost its ability to mobilise public sentiment on the scale that it did a decade ago.

At the core of the British anti-war movement there has been a failure of internationalism. In running a campaign against British intervention in Syria, Stop the War has seemingly run a campaign with as little reference to Syrians as possible, and it stands accused of outright apologism for Russia and Assad, giving platforms to regime loyalists. As a result, the relatively simple anti-war narrative – opposition to British bombing, condemnation of Turkey and Assad, and practical solidarity with secular and progressive forces in Syria – has lost its clarity and persuasiveness in the public eye.

In the coming years, we will need a mass anti-war movement more than ever. The United States has already committed to sending ground troops into Syria. Cameron and future British governments will come under pressure to follow through on the logic of their intervention and to commit more resources and deeper interventions. We should be under no illusions as to where that logic might lead. Recurring global financial crisis, a scramble for resources, and the presence of major rival powers and their allies in the same battlefields: these are the conditions for a much more serious conflict than was sold to MPs last night.

In order to effectively oppose future wars and escalations, the anti-war movement will need to regroup and renew itself. The simplified, reactive politics of recent years needs to be replaced with a genuinely internationalist movement: one that builds solidarity with labour movements and progressive forces on the ground, and opposes dictatorships and imperialist ventures regardless of who is behind them. 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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