The anti-war movement and wider anti-war opinion has scored a great victory. The vote by MPs in the UK’s Houses of Parliament last night not to join a US intervention against Syria was a personal defeat for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, but more widely represented the first time since Suez in 1956 that Britain has broken from support for US foreign policy. This time, enough MPs had the guts to vote against another intervention. Their arguments and information were influenced by a strong public opinion against such a war, itself a product of a mass movement which didn’t stop a war ten years ago but has prevented a further one now.
To all our regret we didn’t stop the war on Iraq, but that tide of anti war opinion has made itself felt again in the past few days. For once, MPs reflected that majority public opinion in the country and Cameron has been forced to admit that he will no longer join any such attack and that Britain will play no part in any Syrian intervention.
The vote was a defeat not just for the British government but the whole system of western imperialism that has relied on the US/British alliance, symbolised most grotesquely in the Blair-Bush partnership that was determined to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11. In the era of globalisation and neo liberalism, that imperialism has been closely linked to an economic system that is now enforcing austerity and impoverishment on working people and the poor.
So desperate was Cameron to win a vote that he had to claim all sorts of things that he doesn’t believe. This isn’t, he said, about regime change, or taking sides, or intervening in a civil war. But it was about all of those issues, and people knew it.
Few have been convinced by the warmongers’ arguments. Their response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus has been to declare that it was carried out by the Assad government, although Cameron had to admit in parliament that this was only a probability. The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, whoever uses them, as is their manufacture. But they have not been confined to Syria, or to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (when he used chemical weapons supplied by the US against the Kurds).
William Hague has branded this attack the first chemical weapons attack of the twenty-first century. |Not true. The US has used white phosphorus and depleted uranium in Fallujah in 2004, and Israel used white phosphorus against the Palestinians in Gaza in 2009. The US used Agent Orange in Vietnam and is of course the only country not just to posses but use nuclear weapons, as it did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
There is a terrible humanitarian crisis in Syria, caused by the ongoing civil war there with casualties and refugees on all sides. Yet when ministers argue again that this is the worst such crisis in decades, they are wrong. According to the UN, the Iraq invasion and occupation led to 4 million external and internal refugees, but this was hardly commented on by the British government and media.
Because, uncomfortable though it is for the pro-war camp, we have a history here.
There have been three major western interventions since 2001: in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. All have been posed as being humanitarian, but each has resulted in greater loss of life, refugee crises and instability than before they took place. The idea of a fourth intervention in a highly unstable civil war was too much for most people.
And then there were the other aspects of Iraq. The faked intelligence, the ignoring of legal opinion, the false claims about WMD and above all the culpable role of Tony Blair, are lodged in the memories of millions of people. So when they started hearing all these arguments again, this time over chemical weapons, they refused to believe them.
We should also remember that there is a history of western intervention in Syria. For the past two years, arms, finance and Special Forces have been poured into the country to back the opposition. A government in waiting of the opposition has been recognised by the western government. The US has repeatedly vetoed Assad’s involvement in peace talks. The Free Syrian Army command centre is in Turkey.
The war in Syria has become a proxy war involving a number of different countries in the region and beyond. What is needed is a political settlement: not further interventions which will only worsen the war.
Obama still plans his attack, most likely to take the form of cruise missile strikes on Syria. It was projected in parliament yesterday as a brief and relatively contained ‘punishment attack’. It is remarkable that the western powers feel they are able to ‘punish’ other countries when their own record is so grim and their arrogance and unaccountability so notable.
But they cannot, in any case, predict what will happen. Do they believe that Syria will not retaliate? The possibility of a much greater Middle East war, involving western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel against Syrian allies in Lebanon and Iran, and maybe involving Russia, is a serious one.
That’s why this victory can only be partial: we’ve stopped the British government but they will try to come back in future over other issues. Obama is going ahead with deadly and perhaps far reaching consequences. So thousands of activists will demonstrate tomorrow in London and around the country and are planning to go to the US embassy in London on Tuesday to protest.
Remember that when people say demonstrating doesn’t make a difference: it did, and it does. So keep protesting, keep marching, keep blocking roads. And please join us out on the streets. There are some who say that this isn’t the effect of protest, but merely reflective of splits within the imperialists and the different establishment parties. That misses out the way in which consciousness changes as a result of people organising, spreading alternative ideas. The ten years between the Iraq war and now seems a long time to us, but in reality it is not long when it comes to working out the impact of protest.
Without the movement over this past decade or more, there would not have been this opposition, or the confidence in anti-war arguments which so many people (including some MPs!) now have. And of course the continued determination to hold Tony Blair to account means that for government ministers today, the spectre of Iraq, of Blair’s pariah status and of their possible future fate must continue to haunt them.