Remove all Western military from the region and stop backing the most reactionary leaders; these should be first steps to solving the crisis, writes Chris Nineham
On 14 November, the day after the Paris atrocities, Chris Nineham made this speech to the Stop the War steering committee meeting.
The whole meeting will no doubt want to send sympathy and a sense of outrage to the people of Paris, who like those in Beirut and Sharm el-Sheikh have suffered horrific and indiscriminate attacks. This discussion could hardly be more important.
That the West's military foreign policy is in a state of chronic confusion is probably not controversial. Plans change from one week to the next and there is a dizzying chasm between rhetoric and reality. For all the macho talk about taking on Isis, for example, in reality only the US and France are actually bombing in Syria at all right now. The other allies in the ‘coalition’ have all pulled back for the time being.
In a general sense this is a reflection of a long-term decline in Western power, but in the immediate it is a product of failure.
The dreadful state of Iraq and Afghanistan are testimony to the complete disaster of phase one of the 'war on terror'.
Nothing symbolises this more graphically than the fact that after fourteen years of occupation of Afghanistan, the US and Britain have both recently sent significant numbers of troops to ‘stabilise’ the country.
Amazingly there are now the same number of US troops in the country as were involved in the invasion back in 2001. The US bombing of the hospital in Kunduz shows these troops are not there in an advisory capacity. A series of Taliban attacks shows that Afghanistan is unravelling again as war continues.
The disasters of war
Pick your indicator: conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq are considerably worse than before the invasions, hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions displaced. And, looked at from the Western powers’ point of view, there can be no doubt that the West is in a weaker and more threatened state than at the end of 2001.
But, most important of all, the outcome of the war has been to spread jihadi terrorism from small pockets in Central Asia to a long arc spreading 3,000 miles across the Middle East and onto the African Continent. Now it is impinging on Europe.
Phase two, Obama's 'war on terror' lite - with its reliance on drones, special forces and arming proxies - has been as bad. It has accelerated the chaos in the Middle East and led to a sharp worsening in the US position there and a continuing spread of jihadi attacks around the world.
His strategy, if that is the word, has comprised first stepping up support for the most reactionary regimes in the region, in particular the Saudis and Qataris, the main opponents of the Arab Spring, and the countries most associated with backing jihadis in Syria and elsewhere.
Second, the US has been trying to develop a third force in Syria committed to fighting Isis and removing Assad. Here, failure has been complete. In its most recent attempt at organising a 5,000 strong anti Isis army the US was left with 54 recruits.
Third, since last year, the US and its dwindling band of allies have been pursuing a bombing strategy in Iraq and Syria which has nothing to show for it. Over this period Isis has made important advances including capturing the key cities of Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq.
If every element of this package has foundered, what it has done is to encourage a complex regional power struggle across the Middle East in which the West’s allies are lined up against a broadly Shia axis. This is a struggle which threatens to break into a genuinely regional war, a fact in turn highlighted by Saudi's recent military campaign in Yemen, an operation which itself is now running into big problems.
At the same time, combined with the decimation and sectarianism unleashed by the occupation of Iraq, this strategy – or lack of it - has also opened the door to Isis and other jihadi groups. Despite the rhetoric, these groups are now dominant in the opposition in Syria.
The level of continuing confusion is underlined by the fact that the US is now fighting against two sides in a civil war in Syria - Isis and Assad. Indeed if Cameron had won the vote for bombing Assad last year it would have served to strengthen the enemy he now wants us to attack.
Russia's involvement has raised the stakes and accelerated events. It is one more obvious sign of the West's weakness as well as evidence that the Syrian civil war is becoming dangerously internationalised. Its impact on the West is contradictory and unpredictable, the military problems it raises makes it harder to argue for bombing in the short term. Right now, combined with the impact of Isis’ recent attacks, it seems to be concentrating the Western governments' minds on the possibility of peace talks. This can change however.
But the most important point is that the war is deadlocked. There is no prospect of any side winning. In Patrick Coburn’s words, each side is ‘too strong to lose and too weak to win’. More intervention can only further entrench the conflict and prolong Syria’s agony.
You wouldn't know it from much of the discussion amongst EU governments or from the media, but the war is also clearly the main driver of the flow of refugees into Europe. The idea touted by Cameron a few weeks ago that, by becoming the eighth country to have dropped bombs on Syria, Britain is going to help stem the flow of refugees, is one of the dumbest notions tabled in a particularly dysfunctional debate.
Only the people of the region have the capacity to deal with Isis and it is absolutely clear that only some kind of political solution can create the conditions to make that remotely possible. Here again the West has been particularly culpable. One of the most under-reported scandals is the way the US and Britain have created obstacles to peace by placing impossible preconditions on negotiations.
Like the US elites, the British establishment is divided over what to do. Unsurprisingly, hawks dominate the Tory party and the default elite position is to intervene and continue to play the role of the US’s loyal, junior partner. They have big problems though, on top of the almost insurmountable one of coming up with of half-credible strategy.
Jeremy Corbyn's opposition to bombing – ratified by the Labour conference though contested by senior ministers - is a very big obstacle. Britain has never gone to war without the leader of the two main parties being on board. There are significant doubts among senior Tory backbenchers too and the foreign affairs committee coming out against intervention was a big blow.
But once again the anti-war movement has been extremely important - almost certainly decisive. We are rightly very associated with the Labour leadership success of our previous chair, Jeremy Corbyn, and our lobbying MPs campaign was the most successful we have ever had.
Close to 10,000 people have lobbied their MPs through the Stop the War website alone, and the movement has organised a series of important real-world protests and lobbies at MPs’ surgeries.
But the pro-war party has not given up – it desperately wants to roll back the defeat of 2013 and create mischief for Jeremy Corbyn. It also wants to keep intervention in the frame. The argument is slipping away from them at the moment, but to be safe we need to maximise the pressure on MPs across the House.
The nonsense of humane war
We also need to have the confidence to confront the ‘softer’ humanitarian arguments that are being recycled to try and win support for intervention. In particularly the constant refrain that, faced with the bloodbath in Syria, ‘we have to do something’. ‘’Doing something’ is never a good strategy, and normally this ‘argument’ exposes an inability to even imagine a foreign policy that does not involve dropping munitions on foreign countries, normally Muslim ones.
There are things the West can do – we should stop backing, arming and hosting the most reactionary and aggressive leaders in the region for example. We should also drop conditions on peace negotiations. But most of all, we need to remove all our military from the region.
But the movement also needs to expose the humanitarian-sounding rhetoric of no fly zones and safe havens. This is important now, and it may become even more important if some sort of peace-keeping force is touted later by the UN. We should remember the Libyan operation started with a no fly zone. And that ended very badly. A no fly zone is in fact airspace seized and patrolled by Western air forces and their allies.
To be viable it would have to involve taking out any possible opposition, including Assad’s air force and anti-aircraft systems and it would risk confrontation with Russian forces. Safe Havens quite simply mean boots on the ground in relatively large numbers, probably tantamount to partition. We should be absolutely clear. The organisations including the Syrian Solidarity Movement who advocate these measures are calling for a significant level of military intervention and they know it.
One of the things the movement is going to have to reaffirm is our commitment to standing shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community under attack, something Stop the War has made central since we began. Unfortunately, faced with a situation slipping out of their control, you can be sure governments across the Western world will default to escalating demonization of Muslims.
But we have a series of other arguments to win. And we need to pursue them energetically. We should sustain the lobbying and make it as high profile and systematic as possible. We should keep up the meetings and the rallies. Every Stop the War local group should have a public rally on the subject in the near future. There is widespread confusion about some of these issues and we need to take clear them up. We have a series of briefing papers we have produced for MPs that we should circulate more widely as well. And we need to get out onto the streets. Every time we do we get a great reception
Most important of all we have to reassert the argument that it is the wars of the last fourteen years that have played the major role in generating the horror of terrorism. And that pursuing them further is simply too dangerous to contemplate.
We are more powerful than they want us to think. If it hadn’t been for the protests, the petitioning, the marching, the lobbying and the thousands of arguments and debates conducted by the movement it is almost certain Britain would be at war with Syria.
From: Stop the War Coalition
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- Brighton 2021: Members speak out on Starmer, stitch ups and next steps for the left
- 'On the road to nowhere': Leah Levane on Labour, Starmer and the expulsions - video
- 'We need to move fast': Ken Loach on Starmer, socialism and building a new left - interview
- Gas and greed: Why Britain faces a special crisis
- Aukus: ratcheting up Western confrontation with China - video
- The tragedy after the tragedy: 9/11 and the war on Afghanistan
- Back to the future: revolutionary art on the Mersey