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.