Where is the anti-war left’s fury over Syria?

A real anti-war movement would oppose all military aggression, be it American, Russian or Syrian.

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The word “Orwellian” is one of the most overused in the English language. Yet occasionally it is justified. At the Stop the War Coalition’s recent conference in London, there were chants of “No more war” as visitors tried to drown out a pro-Syria counter-protest by activists who want to see civilians protected.

Stop the War is opposed to any Western initiative that involves the use of weapons, planes or ammunition. In the past, it has invited supporters of the Syrian government to address its events – the pro-regime nun Mother Agnes was a guest in 2013 – while refusing to host anti-regime Syrians. So the chants of “No more war” brought to mind images of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its reality-inverting “War is peace” slogan. Ensuring that Western governments stay out of Syria won’t ensure “no more war”: it will merely make it easier for these“peace” activists to ignore the carnage.

Jeremy Corbyn is a long-time supporter of Stop the War. He was present at its founding in 2001 and was its chair between 2011 and 2015. It was his presence at the conference that sparked the protest. Oz Katerji, one of the activists ejected from the venue for the event, said in a statement that Stop the War was continuing “to deny platforms to Syrian voices yet providing voices to those who openly back Assad’s criminal war”. Similarly, last year the Syria Solidarity UK campaign group accused the current Stop the War chair, Andrew Murray, of wanting a Syria in which there was “no change of regime, and no demand for Assad to step down: in other words, a continuation of the Assad regime”.

Launched two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Stop the War Coalition was dominated from the outset by the Socialist Workers Party. Yet Stop the War only came to prominence when it organised the march against the Iraq War in 2003 – though most of the hundreds of thousands who protested on the day probably had little idea who the organisers were. Fifteen years later, its politics remain dominated by reflexive anti-Americanism: the group described the November 2015 Paris attacks as a product of “Western support for extremist violence in the Middle East”. An article on its website about Vladimir Putin’s annexation of eastern Ukraine in 2014 said: “If we have to pick a side over Crimea, let it be Russia.”

A real anti-war movement would oppose all military aggression, be it American, Russian or Syrian. Yet Stop the War is dominated by activists for whom capitalism – and, by extension, the United States – is the greatest evil.

To them, for people living in Western democracies, the main enemy is always the government at home. As such, the West’s enemies are often Stop the War’s friends. Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a statement from the group called for an end to the occupation of Iraq but, crucially, also recognised “the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends”. The group that became al-Qaeda in Iraq – and later Islamic State – was at the time engaged in beheadings, kidnappings and torture.

Stop the War argues that it is not the job of British anti-war activists to protest against foreign powers. Instead, they ought to oppose what their own government is doing. It’s up to Russians to rein in the Russian government, just as it is down to the British to civilise the British government.

This neat division of the world into pro- and anti-war spheres sounds enlightened, yet it could work only if there were anti-war movements and democratic governments everywhere. This is a general problem with anti-war politics: tyrannical regimes can brush aside anti-war sentiment like a bear swatting away a stick. Those governments are free to inflict savagery abroad, as in the case of Russia’s pulverisation of Aleppo. Western initiatives such as a no-fly zone could conceivably reduce this killing; and yet Stop the War strains every sinew to prevent the British government from acting, lest it require the use of direct military force.

Despite his involvement with the organisation, it would be unfair to tar Corbyn with this brush. Corbyn gives the impression of being a pacifist, and Stop the War is a malevolent force in part because it is not. Pacifism is frustrating, because it necessarily involves a call to lie down in front of a tank in the hope that the person driving it will stop. But Stop the War makes pacifism look positively attractive. If the newspapers reported tomorrow that the United States was about to invade hell, Stop the War would soon be petitioning us on behalf of the devil. 

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article appears in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage