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  • Published in Opinion

Cameron's plans to bomb Syria may have suffered a setback, but we still have to build the anti-war movement, argues Alastair Stephens

“Parliament does not vote. Nothing will happen,” is not usually news. But this time it is. The reported decision by Cameron not to push ahead with a vote on bombing Syria is a big story.

It is the collapse of the latest attempt by our rulers to involve this country in the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East. This should be welcomed. Britain is after all one of its key authors.

Cameron has been pushing since the early summer for a vote in parliament to allow British forces to bomb Syria. Sources have said that they would go for one as soon as they thought they had the votes to get it through comfortably. They could not risk another defeat as they suffered the last time they put it to the Commons.

This damaged Cameron’s reputation, Britain’s standing in the world (in their perverse view) and had a knock-on effect around the world. Only days later the Obama administration retreated from putting similar proposals to Congress.

Our rulers, and in particular the military and ‘intelligence community’ have been itching to involve themselves in Syria. After being the ‘indispensable ally’ to the US in every major conflict over the last two decades, the UK is not the US’s side-kick in the latest Middle East conflict.

This is galling to them. After all it was an English civil servant, Mr Sykes, who along with his French counterpart M. Picot, invented these countries 99 years ago when they carved up the ailing Ottoman empire.

Though this may pull at heart strings in the country houses of England, such sentiment means nothing to the current players in the region. In the world of great power politics bombs equals influence. Global power play is just one motivation though. Low domestic politics is the other: the Tories want to undermine Corbyn by dividing the Labour Party on the issue.

The Tories needed to attract enough Labour warmongers to make up for their own rebels and pass it with a decent majority. The Tory rebels seem resolute though. The Tory-dominated Foreign Affairs Committees report might well prove to be the final straw that broke the interventionist camel’s back.

Cameron and co’s determination to dive into the Middle East whirpool again is not shared by the whole ruling class. Many fear adding fuel a conflagration already threatening to run out of control. Others fear a popular backlash against another Middle East disaster. The anti-war movement, after years of campaigning against wars in the Balkans and Middle East, and having won over popular opinion, is now finally being reflected from the Labour benches.

The Corbyn effect and the surge to the left amongst Labour’s membership, seen for instance in Scottish Labour’s vote against Trident, has stiffened the anti-war resolve. When a Labour shadow foreign minister, Catherine West, spoke last week at the Stop the War Coalition meeting at the Houses of Parliament, you knew that something had changed.

And a stop to the drum beat for war in Westminster could not have come sooner. For all the jaw-jaw in Vienna, in talks to which Syrians were not actually invited, everyone knows that the situation in Syria is becoming an ever more serious threat to peace of the entire region and world.

Syria has become a battleground for forces far beyond the country's borders. It is a multi-faceted situation in which it is not even clear who is really backing who any more. Interventions by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey have been joined by the US ad Russia, both of whom are now bombing the country.

Last week in a new escalation, Barak Obama broke his oft-repeated pledge that there would be no US ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria by ordering the Special Forces into action. The administration has not gone to Congress for authorisation for this deployment in yet another country and instead is maintaining that the powers granted in 2001 to George Bush to fight al-Qaeda are legally sanction enough.

That Obama has so avoided Congress, in a manner more befitting of Richard Nixon than his hero Abraham Lincoln, is a sign of the fear that all our rulers have: that anti-war feeling has spread across our societies in the wake of the Iraq War.

This would not be the case if there had not been the great anti-war movement of the last decade and a half. But this was not some kind of natural counter-reaction to their warmongering. It was product of campaigning.

Which does not mean that Cameron and the warmongers will not try again. Publicly they are denying that they've given up. The violent chaos in the Middle East is spreading and Britain will again try and involve itself at the side of the US. Not because it has pretensions to be an imperialist power, but because it is one of the second rank now, rather than the global peer it once was.

And that is why even when we are not actually at war they keep up a barrage of propaganda preparing us for new military adventures in the Middle East. That is why the war machine will continue to spew Islamophobia. That is why they wish to reintegrate the military into everyday life and neutralise criticism of its actions elsewhere in the world.

And that is why the struggle against militarism and war has to go on: the threat of peace, from their perspective, is imminent and real.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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