Stop the war! Until the UN gives the go-ahead!
Russell McCarthy finds anti-war activists aren’t as opposed to intervention in Syria as you might expect.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’m at the Stop the War Coalition’s demonstration in Whitehall against Western intervention in Syria. Having read the statement released by StWC in advance of the demo, I am hopeful that the event will provide an opportunity to make a principled stand against war with Syria. But I’m quickly disappointed. Instead, I meet a collection of conspiracy theorists, each with their own weird idea about what lies behind the UK government’s eagerness to strike the Syrian regime. The primary concern of most of the protesters I talk to is that such an attack would be bad for Britain.
For a hastily arranged protest, there’s a pretty impressive crowd – a few thousand, perhaps. Most of the demonstrators are either elderly veteran activists or students, with a few falling somewhere in the middle. I bump into some of the pseudo-anarchist fracktivists I met at Balcombe a few weeks ago; they greet me in a less-than-polite fashion.
Many of the protestors evidently don’t keep up with contemporary politics. A large group chants, ‘Arrest Tony Blair!’. Others, realising that demand is an anachronism, start chanting ‘Arrest Cameron!’. The resulting cacophony makes it difficult to work out what exactly is being said. ‘Why are they saying “Arrest Tony Benn?”’, one protester asks me.
As with the protests over Iraq and Afghanistan, many of the demonstrators are using the issue of intervention as a way of venting anger about domestic issues. The most common chant is, ‘One, two, three, four / We don’t want your fucking war! / Five, six, seven, eight / Spend it on the welfare state!’. The main sentiment, expressed both on placards and in speeches, seems to be that we just can’t afford a new foreign venture in these times of austerity. This obsession with how a potential conflict will effect us speaks volumes. It seems that some of the narcissism driving Britain towards war has leaked into the anti-war camp, too.
When I ask demonstrators why the West might want to bomb Syria, I’m treated to an array of muddled conspiracy theories, pointing the finger of blame at some combination of big oil companies, big banks and Israel.
In a garbled 30-second section of his speech, veteran leftist Tariq Ali gives us a labyrinthine theory as to what is driving interventionism in Syria: it’s because the US supports Israel but hates Iran, and Iran and Syria both like Hezbollah, who hate Israel, and therefore the US will bomb Syria just to annoy Iran and impress Israel.
The clearest speech comes from Labour’s shadow minister for public health, Diane Abbott. She says it is delusional to think that if he is bombed by the West Assad will realise the error of his ways and step aside. ‘I voted against Iraq, I voted against Afghanistan, and I will not support war with Syria!’ she says, to an enormous cheer from the crowd. Speaking of Syria, Abbott seems to have had a Damascene conversion in the space of a few hours. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier in the day, she said things like: ‘We’ll have to see the prime minister’s motion’; ‘I would be in favour of a UN-led intervention’; ‘If we had taken the trouble to get the backing of the international community [in Iraq] it would have been a more thoughtful intervention.’ A far cry from her tub-thumping anti-war posturing at the demo.
Abbott is not alone in favouring a ‘more thoughtful’, UN-led intervention in Syria. Bruce Kent of the Movement for the Abolition of War tells me ‘the UN is the answer, I’m very UN-minded’.
Like Abbott and Kent, many of the protesters I speak to would not actually be opposed to intervention in Syria if it were ‘legal’ and UN-led. Two men hold a placard that says, ‘We’re going to war without evidence’. They tell me: ‘The use of chemical weapons hasn’t been proven yet.’ If it is proven that poison gas was used, would that make the intervention okay? ‘It would make it less bad’, says one. I ask why deaths caused by gas should be viewed differently from deaths caused by other weapons. They stare at me in bafflement.
Among the dozens of people I speak to, and the many speeches I hear, not a single person puts forward any faith in the ability of the Syrian people themselves to determine their destinies and shape the future of their country. Beneath the railing against the illegality of the proposed intervention and the antics of Zionists and oil companies, there lies a vacuous, confused and unprincipled stance against bombing Syria. This won’t stop the war.
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