Marcus Halaby writes from London:
All socialists and democrats should support the Kurdish resistance to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, and the remaining revolutionary-democratic forces struggling against Assad’s reactionary dictatorship. At the same time we should ask: how did the Kurdish national liberation movement and the Syrian democratic revolution come to such a dire pass, why have they not supported each another, and why has the Western anti-war movement failed in its basic task of solidarity?
US President Donald Trump’s sudden abandonment of his Syrian Kurdish clients to a Turkish invasion has rightly shocked the world with its breathtaking cynicism. But it sits within a litany of similar past betrayals by imperialist powers of vulnerable populations under their their self-interested and unreliable “protection”.
One of the most notorious of these betrayals in recent decades has been the abandonment by Dutch “peacekeepers” of Bosnian Muslim civilians to slaughter by Serb chauvinists in Srebrenica in 1995. Another would be the abandonment by French and Italian “peacekeepers” of Palestinian refugees to slaughter by Israel’s Lebanese Phalangist allies in Sabra and Chatila in 1982.
British imperialism in its heyday made a habit of such acts, most notoriously in the form of its power vacuum-inducing withdrawals from India and from Palestine in 1947-48. The former resulted in the death or displacement of some 14 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs amidst the chaos of Partition, while the latter helped to bring about the ethnic cleansing of three-quarters of the Arab Palestinian people. None of this is to suggest that socialists should have supported British imperialism or its equivalents in similar scenarios remaining in order to “keep the peace”, only it is precisely on this sort of pretence that they claimed the right to be there in the first place. If anything, this is a powerful argument against their “interventions” to begin with, since even when imperialist powers “withdraw” they do so in a way that is as disastrous and as counterproductive as when they “intervene”.
US imperialism now appears determined to copy the methods that once earned the British Empire its reputation as “Perfidious Albion”. But the timing and the seeming irrationality of Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds demonstrate a regime in crisis, one where major decisions are made on the whims of an erratic ruler whose personal, family and business interests rank above the objective interests of the capitalist ruling class that he is supposed to represent.
A US regime in crisis
The most conscious subjective motivations for Trump’s announcement almost certainly involve short-term domestic political advantage, a populist sop to his “isolationist” electoral base amid growing calls for his impeachment on corruption charges. He has made similar announcements in the recent past as well, usually after phone calls with his allies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
On previous occasions, these announcements have carefully been toned down and then reversed by defence and foreign policy bigwigs, who have gotten used to having to conduct “damage limitation” on the decisions of a President who makes foreign policy via Twitter. This time there has been no “damage limitation” exercise; and the biggest share of the “damage” that results is likely to fall upon Syria’s oppressed Kurdish national minority.
Trump’s calls since for a “ceasefire”, in the course of a declared national emergency through which he has reimposed economic sanctions and immigration bans on Turkey, are likely only to regulate the chaos that he has created. Likewise, his clarification that US forces will not fully be withdrawing from the region after all signals only that one of the many arsonists in Syria reserves its right to remain behind as a potential firefighter, while at least two of the others – Erdogan and Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad – appear to be pouring petrol over each other.
Trump’s betrayal has aroused a storm of disapproval not just from the US defence and foreign policy establishments, or even just from longstanding Republican and Democratic opponents alike. Trump’s outraged critics include some of his otherwise most loyal Republican allies and defenders like Senator Lindsey Graham. Their own motivations are no less cynical, only Trump’s announcement both calls into question the credibility of US guarantees, and from their own standpoint is premature in the extreme.
YPG, US troops and ISIS
Their biggest stated concern is that the USA’s precipitously weakened Kurdish allies may not be able to maintain control of the tens of thousands of Islamic State prisoners in their custody, many of whom are foreign nationals whose home governments have refused to take responsibility for them. There have already been reports of former Islamic State militants breaking out of a prison in Qamishli following Turkish shelling, and similar incidents could follow. Another factor is that US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) provided US imperialism with a continued “footprint” in Syria, a valuable bargaining-chip for any future “political settlement” that US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia hope to see include an Iranian military withdrawal from the country.
Probably more sincere have been the expressions of many US veterans who fought or worked alongside the YPG and its allies. One, citing the US Army Soldier’s Creed’s instruction “never to leave a fallen comrade” has argued that Trump’s decision will “lead to a slaughter of innocents who have supported our country through thick and thin”, adding that the Kurds “stuck with the United States because we essentially promised them survival”. Another, describing the SDF as “probably some of the most noble people I’d ever met”, added that “there will be a whole generation of US military that will never forget this betrayal nor stop apologising for it”.
What will have impressed these people so much is the spirit of collective solidarity and self-sacrifice that has long been commented upon by the international left in its literature on the YPG. A version of this same ethos, albeit with a different ideology behind it, also existed in the the rebel-held “liberated zones” in the Arab-majority regions that escaped Assad’s rule between 2011 and 2016.
It is the entirely recognisable ethos of every revolution, every national liberation movement and indeed of every legitimate struggle that has ever had to take up arms against a more powerful enemy. It stands in sharp contrast to the vicious sectarianism both of Islamic State and of the sectarian Lebanese, Iraqi and Yemeni Shiite militias that Iran assembled in support of the Assad regime. It stands in similarly sharp contrast to the venal, corrupted and indisciplined ethos both of the Assad’s regime’s conscript army and allied militias, and of Erdogan’s present Syrian proxies against the Kurds.
Nevertheless, Trump’s withdrawal is likely to have consequences that could yet be turned to US imperialism’s advantage, especially in the context of any future US-instigated or US-supported aggressions against Iran. In particular, it removes a bone of contention between Trump and Erdogan, who might otherwise have posed an obstacle to a US attack on Iran.
Trump’s withdrawal has similarly been welcomed by Russia, which alongside China and the USA has blocked any condemnation of Turkey’s invasion by the United Nations. Like Arab Syrians in Aleppo and elsewhere in 2016, Syria’s Kurds are now set to become the latest victims of yet another bloody “rapprochement” between rival imperialist powers.
Erdogan’s “humanitarian” militarism
Erdogan’s proposed 480 kilometre-wide and 32 kilometre-deep Turkish-occupied “safe zone” provides the Turkish state with somewhere to deport about 3.6 million Syrian refugees, albeit somewhere that most of them don’t actually come from and will not necessarily be grateful for being “returned” to.
The overwhelming majority of these refugees fled to Turkey to escape the militarised state violence that Assad’s regime visited upon its own people to maintain its weakened hold on power following the popular uprising against it in March 2011. They were later joined by others fleeing from the rise of Islamic State, as well as from the genocidal bombing campaign that Russia later conducted in Assad’s support from mid-2015 onwards. Erdogan had otherwise threatened to flood Europe with these same refugees to reduce the economic and political pressure on his own regime, and is demanding $27 billion in aid to “resettle” these refugees in return for not doing so.
To bring this “safe zone” about, Erdogan must first expel from the region the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This umbrella coalition of Kurdish and former “moderate rebel” militias was assembled under the YPG’s leadership by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2015, to provide the USA with the “boots on the ground” needed to pursue Obama’s “war on terror” with Islamic State.
Erdogan’s own local proxies in the course of his own “war on terror” against Kurdish separatism consist mainly of the so-called “Syrian National Army” (SNA). This far more recently assembled force consists of motley former Syrian “rebels” whose principal present mission is no longer to defend the few surviving “liberated zones” in the north-west of Syria from attack by Assad’s airforce or Russia’s. Rather, these defeated former revolutionaries have abandoned the goals of their own original struggle – and with them, their ties to the masses – to act as Erdogan’s mercenary border guards, conducting operations against the SDF, the Salafi-jihadist Nusra Front and Islamic State on behalf of the Turkish military.
SDF within its rights
The SDF are entirely within their rights to defend the Kurdish-majority regions in Syria’s Kurdish “Rojava” statelet from Turkish invasion. Turkey’s vengeful hostility towards the Kurds is underlined both by its own past and present repressions of its own oppressed Kurdish national minority, and by its forcible displacement of scores of thousands of Kurds from the previously SDF-held enclave of Afrin in early 2018.
Already, tens of thousands of Kurds have fled Turkish shelling, while Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was murdered by SNA fighters at a checkpoint in Ain Issa near Tell Abyad on 13 October. The pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak even hailed this assassination as a “success”, incorrectly reporting it as an Israeli-style “targeted killing” from the air. Khalaf herself was a leader of the Kurdish Syria Future Party, and as such was regarded as a prominent Kurdish critic of Rojava’s ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The bitter irony of this should not be lost; this was probably one of the most high-profile political assassinations in Rojava since that of Mishal Tammo, the founder in 2005 of the similarly-named but unrelated Future Movement. Tammo had been an early proponent of Kurdish participation in the 2011 Syrian revolution, and was murdered on behalf of Assad’s regime in Qamishli in October of that year, an act that many of his supporters still blame on the PYD. Like Tammo’s assassination, Khalaf’s death at the hands of Erdogan’s bought and paid-for former “revolutionaries” also involved killing a symbol of Arab-Kurdish coexistence and cooperation.
Rojava and Arabs
In Rojava’s Arab-majority regions however, there is a risk that at the very least a large part of the Arab population could welcome the arrival of the Turkish military and its Syrian proxies – in Tell Abyad, in Tell Rifaat and especially in Manbij and in Islamic State’s former “capital” Raqqa. Many of these areas have been brought into Rojava only as a result of US airstrikes on Islamic State, and their instinctively “pro-rebel” and certainly anti-Assad populations have at least in part experienced the SDF’s presence as an occupation almost as hostile to them as Islamic State’s presence was previously. There could even be defections to Turkey’s side from the Arab and other non-Kurdish elements within the SDF, as there were in August 2016 during the limited Arab-Kurdish clashes near Manbij that followed Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates Shield” against Islamic State.
As with Turkey’s aggressions against the Syrian Kurds in general, Erdogan is well-placed to exploit the resentments of these populations towards PYD rule. And it is worth understanding what these resentments are, only they are in large part the consequences both of US imperialist intervention and of the PYD’s poor politics.
They include the SDF’s complicity in the widespread death and destruction that was part and parcel of the US-led “air war” against Islamic State, which has destroyed about 80 per cent of Raqqa in particular. They also include the obstruction of the return of Arab refugees on the pretext of their being alleged former Islamic State sympathisers or collaborators, as well as the repression of anti-Assad opposition civil society organisations.
In Manbij they include the SDF’s refusal to allow the return of the elected pro-rebel ruling council, which was exiled to Turkey following Islamic State’s seizure of Manbij from the Syrian opposition in mid-2014. Most of all, they include the SDF’s past tactical alliances with the Assad regime, amongst them its role in helping Assad to maintain the siege of Aleppo prior to its fall in December 2016, an event that marked the decisive strategic defeat of the revolution against Assad that began five and a half years earlier.
None of these are reasons to support or to be indifferent to Erdogan’s war against the Kurds. Many of those possessed of this outlook however will probably have to learn the hard way that Turkey’s invasion will be no “liberation” for them, but merely an exchange of one externally-imposed occupation for another. It will further drive a wedge between Syria’s Arabs and Syria’s Kurds to the detriment of both, in part by strengthening the wing of Kurdish nationalism in Syria that sees its safest option as being the reintegration of Rojava into Assad’s restored state – an ultimate fate for which regular US announcements have been preparing Syrian Kurdish opinion for almost the last two years.
Indeed, the deal apparently struck between the SDF and the regime on 13 October points precisely in this direction. Its ultimate result however will still be the snuffing out of the Rojava experiment, albeit by Assad’s hands rather than by Erdogan’s.
Moreover, if Erdogan’s record in Idlib is anything to go by, then a Turkish military presence will prove as unreliable a source of “protection” against Putin’s and Assad’s aggressions as the US military presence has proved to be for the Kurds with regard to Turkey’s state violence. There, one can observe a certain counter-revolutionary division of labour between Erdogan’s SNA and Assad’s “Syrian Arab Army” (SAA). While the SAA presents an armed threat to the surviving democratic gains of the 2011 revolution from without, the SNA threatens those same gains from within. In particular, Erdogan’s mini-war against the Nusra Front in Idlib (conducted to placate Vladimir Putin) is being used as cover for an increasing authoritarianism, while those rebel militias that have not yet fully been suborned by the Turkish state bear the brunt of the Assad regime’s attacks.
A crisis of leadership
Outside of the areas most directly affected, it can only be those with the most blinkered illusions in Erdogan, or with the most unreasoning hostility towards the Kurds in general that can see anything positive in Turkey’s invasion. But this bloody “wedge” driven between Kurds and Arabs by US and Turkish intervention in turn speaks to a serious crisis of leadership in the struggles of both.
The shortsighted ethnic nationalism of the leaderships both of the Syrian democratic opposition and of the Kurdish national struggle in Syria, alongside the “pragmatic” acceptance by both of external tutelage, has created a very sorry state of affairs indeed. There are now two national liberation movements in Syria, each of them entirely justified in their own right, that have been and are still now just as likely to fight each other on behalf of their external sponsors than they are to fight against their own real enemies.
One, arising out of the Syrian popular uprising against Assad’s dictatorship, has taken shelter under a Turkish occupation against a Russian and Iranian occupation. The other, arising out of the national aspirations of Syria’s oppressed Kurds, has similarly taken shelter under a US occupation from the external threats posed to its existence, first by Islamic State and then by Turkey.
Both struggles have been betrayed by their external sponsors at least once: Syrian democrats by Erdogan in the form of the machinations that brought about the fall of Aleppo, and the Kurds in the form of Trump’s abandonment of Afrin last year and of the Syrian-Turkish border region today. And yet these betrayals so far have not yet weakened the hold of the betrayers on their betrayed proteges, but have merely impressed upon the opportunistic Arab and Kurdish leaderships their own increasingly abject dependence on their Turkish and US “protectors”.
In the Kurdish case, this is mitigated only slightly by the fact that the SDF does at least theoretically have the option of exchanging Russia for the USA as its own external sponsor. However, given Russia’s effective incitement of Erdogan’s assault on Afrin last year, and given that Erdogan and Assad are both somewhat more important allies for Putin than Syria’s Kurds could ever be, this is still a rather shaky proposition to say the least.
Way out of impasse
The only possible way out of this impasse is through some form of alliance between Arab and Kurdish progressives. And the only conceivable basis for this alliance should be obvious to all. It will have to involve an acceptance by Arab Syrians of Kurdish national rights and territorial autonomy in a post-Assad Syria, up to and including the right to separate from Syria and to join some future Kurdish state, at least in the event that one ever comes into existence. And it will have to involve Kurdish participation in the struggle of the Syrian people as a whole for democratic rights and against dictatorship, a struggle that most Syrian Kurds readily took part in at the beginning of the revolution while their present “leaders” in the PYD largely opposed their participation in it.
Many people in fact already understand this, and many of the most principled elements amongst the exiled Syrian democrat milieu and their supporters have quite instinctively and spontaneously condemned and opposed Erdogan’s invasion, as many of them did previously with regard to Afrin, amongst them the author Leila Al-Shami and the academic Idrees Ahmad. On the Kurdish side, the PYD’s own record of authoritarianism and political repression has alienated many Kurdish progressives, although this trend is likely to be weakened by any sign of Syrian opposition support for Erdogan, of which there will probably be plenty.
This “alliance” however is something that the partisans of both struggles will almost certainly have to achieve without and against their present leaderships, and that they will therefore both have to develop new leaderships in order to bring about. But this will also have to mean a rejection by both sides of any external tutelage – whether US, Saudi, Turkish or Qatari – the better to escape entanglement in the agendas of rival powers that have induced and exacerbated the entirely unnatural Arab-Kurdish rivalry. And it will have to struggle in particular against the interventions of all of the occupying powers in Syria – Russian, Turkish, Iranian and US – as well as against the Assad regime, whose grim preservation has been the entirely predictable and partly intended consequence of these interventions.
None of this however will come about merely as a result of the sincerity or the capacity for principle of any number of Arab or Kurdish progressives. It will depend above all on the ability of a class-conscious working-class movement to bring itself to the head of the struggles for democracy and national rights, in the process reconstituting the nation under its own hegemony. This at present is something that exists only in embryo – and anyone who wants to see this embryo develop into something capable of life should be doing everything they can to promote a class-based politics that embraces international solidarity and that rejects the outside interventions of states as a matter of course, whatever “humanitarian” or “democratic” garb this intervention comes disguised in.
“Regime change” and the “war on terror”
It would be a huge mistake though for Western leftists to imagine that this “crisis of leadership” is something that exists only “over there”, and that our role “over here” is merely to deliver high-minded sermons about internationalism to people whose struggles and whose very lives are most directly threatened. Only the principal anti-war movement organisations in the West are also in the grip of a “crisis of leadership”, one that has seen them promote a politics that separates “anti-imperialism” from “international solidarity” by treating the latter as an unwarranted impertinence, or even as a cover for imperialist intervention.
Far too many of the Western anti-war movements’ most prominent public figures, in Britain for example amongst them George Galloway and Andrew Murray, responded with outright hostility to the Syrian revolution against Assad, either from its very outset or at least from its transformation into an armed struggle in early 2012. On the basis of the Assad regime’s much-exaggerated “support” for the Palestinians, its two-faced “anti-imperialist” rhetoric or the fact that its principal backers have been Russia and Iran, they have treated the one “Arab Spring” revolution of 2011 that was most sustained and that sank the deepest roots into the popular masses as being a US “proxy war” for “regime change”, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Indeed, many of these figures (and the organisations associated with them) rose to prominence during the 2001-05 movements against the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; and it appears that they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing about the failure of these movements to “stop the war”.
More mainstream anti-war figures like John Rees and Tariq Ali have avoided the more extreme expressions of support for Assad of their allies, albeit in Tariq Ali’s case only just. But they have still fallen in behind their false perspective of opposing the “regime change war” that wasn’t happening, whether because they prefer to let their congenitally pro-Russian and pro-Iranian allies do their strategic thinking for them, or because they fear breaking ranks with them in case this deprives them of the resources that provide their shrinking organisations with the outward signs of continued life.
“anti-imperialism” and international solidarity
This was obscene enough in the two years before the rise of Islamic State, insofar as it promoted an “anti-imperialism” that was hostile or indifferent to the principal victims of our own ruling classes’ Russian imperialist rivals, or whose “international solidarity” was with the victimisers. Utterly distorting the meaning of the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht’s commendable maxim that “the main enemy is at home”, they have taught an ageing generation of 2003-era activists to regard Russian imperialism’s bloodstained interventions as being relatively benign, or at least as being something that people should not get too worked up about.
But for the last five years, it has also produced an “anti-war movement” whose leaderships have been far more worried about the outside risk that US imperialism could double-cross its Russian allies in their joint “war on terror” against Islamic State than with opposing the principal interventions of Western governments. Major Western atrocities like the airborne destruction of Mosul or Raqqa receive very little attention, as if they are just so much background noise. Emergency demonstrations and hyperbolic expressions of outrage are reserved for minor punitive actions against Assad, like those that followed his poison gas attacks on Douma last year or on Khan Shaykhun in 2017.
Their real guiding maxim has therefore not been that “the main enemy is at home”, but rather that “the only enemy is at home, and then only if it is antagonising its principal rivals abroad instead of conducting wars alongside them”. No-one after all wants to be accused of “supporting jihadists”, and it is far easier to oppose “regime change” than it is to oppose the “war on terror”, especially when our own governments are also opposed to “regime change” and are fighting a war against “jihadists”.
And yet far from the USA or Russia double-crossing each other, so far it has only been Turkey and the USA that have double-crossed their Arab Syrian and Kurdish clients. In the medium-term future, there remains the prospect that Putin could double-cross Assad as the price of a “regional settlement” – something that no sane person anywhere should shed a single tear over – or that Russia could abandon Iran to some US, Saudi or Israeli aggression – something that will be a disaster for the people of Iran and of the region, for all of the Iranian state’s nefarious role in assisting Assad’s genocide of his own people.
Imperialism supporting Assad regime
The uncomfortable fact is that for the last five years in Syria, US imperialism and its Western allies have been at war with the Assad regime’s enemies, rather than with Assad. As also was Russia, with the difference that while the West primarily fought Islamic State to protect its own access to Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil reserves, the USA’s uncomfortable Russian and Iranian allies took advantage of this breathing space afforded to them by Western intervention to crush Syria’s democratic revolution.
That was the real “imperialist war” that socialists everywhere needed to oppose, of course without for a moment backing the ultra-reactionaries of Islamic State. That was the real “imperialist intervention”, not some mythical “war for regime change”. The fact that Obama provided quite limited aid to some Syrian rebels – primarily for use against Islamic State – does not change that for a moment. Nor does the fact that Obama’s Saudi, Turkish and Qatari allies tepidly provided aid to the Syrian opposition for use against Assad, in the process seeking to exploit and to suborn their justified struggles just as US imperialism has sought to exploit and to suborn the entirely justified struggles of Syria’s Kurds.
It might even be said that Obama’s choice of the YPG as his principal instrument against Islamic State – rather than the rebels’ “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) – was motivated precisely by the fear that a successful revolution against Assad’s regime would prove to have consequences as unpredictable and as difficult to manage as the 2011 revolution that overthrew the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi did. Like Putin and like Iran’s leader Hassan Rouhani, Obama too was opposed to any “regime change” in Damascus that might cause the Libyan or Iraqi-style collapse of Assad’s state and security apparatus.
The only appreciable difference between Obama and Trump in this regard has been that Obama’s cant about supporting “democracy” in the Arab world meant that he had to cover his tracks with calls for a “negotiated transition” in Syria, during which Assad would be allowed to remain in power pending “elections”. Trump however has been far more explicit in opposing any arrangements that might require US imperialism to commit long-term resources to maintaining the “stability” of a country in which the USA has few pressing interests. And he has combined this with a bellicose rhetoric towards Iran that marks a partial reversal of Obama’s efforts to bring Iran back into the Western fold after a forty-year absence.
The need for a new anti-war movement
Much of this is a closed book to much of Western anti-war opinion, which has largely followed its ossified leaderships in hailing the YPG as an anti-imperialist force while denouncing the FSA as a tool of “Western-backed regime change”, not that this widespread fetishisation of Rojava has done much for the Kurds. In fact, so badly misinformed have many Western anti-war activists been by their own leaders that to many of them it will come as complete news that the YPG was a US ally to begin with, especially given the bizarre and yet widely-held belief that the the USA was “supporting al-Qaeda and Islamic State”.
This outlook led many either to slander or to patronise those Arab Syrians and their supporters who raised futile and misguided calls for a “no-fly zone” to protect the rebel-held areas from Russian and Assad regime bombing. But now that the Kurds and their supporters in the West are raising similar such calls, what arguments are these “anti-war” figures left with to oppose them with now, beyond stating the obvious: that a US military intervention against Erdogan to “save the Kurds” is about as likely as a US military intervention against Assad to “save Aleppo and Idlib” was in 2016?
With this model of “anti-war politics”, it should be no surprise that so many pro-Syrian democracy activists continue to display illusions in Erdogan, or that so many pro-Kurdish activists continue to display illusions in US imperialism. An “anti-imperialism” that rejects international solidarity could not be better designed to drive the advocates of solidarity with the oppressed directly into the arms of the advocates of imperialist “humanitarian intervention”.
What this all demonstrates is the need for a complete re-elaboration of anti-war and anti-imperialist politics, and with it the emergence of a new anti-war movement on a new political basis. An anti-war movement whose points of unity will be opposition to the warlike acts of the global imperialist and regional great powers everywhere, whoever the victims or perpetrators are – including the many bloody interventions with unfashionable victims that today’s anti-war movements are often so reticent about raising any vocal opposition to.
An anti-war movement that does not abuse the maxim that “the main enemy is at home” to oppose any effective solidarity with progressive struggles abroad. But one that understands that opposing the interventions of “our own” governments at home is a priority because those are the interventions that we are materially in a position to obstruct – and not because the interventions of their rivals by default are are any less horrific or more benign. An anti-war movement that is not paralysed by the useless shibboleths of “opposing regime change”, “preserving sovereignty” or “promoting stability”; or for that matter by the faith placed by many in the meaningless platitudes of “international law”.
This movement’s overall message should be one of opposition to the interventions of all the powers, whether they are aimed at the overthrow of regimes or at their stabilisation or preservation, whether they are aimed against armed insurgencies or against internationally-recognised states, and whether or not they involve the immediate prospect of war with other major powers.
Real global anti-war movement needed
In short, we need a global anti-war movement with a very different politics and a new set of leaderships to the movement that we have at present, to face the wars of the future that could make the present slaughter in Syria look like a sideshow. Building such a movement will not be a simple or straightforward matter, no more than the rebuilding of a working-class movement in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Kurdistan or Iran will be. And it will certainly not come about by replicating the organisational model of the existing anti-war movement, of deceptively “broad united fronts” that claim a monopoly on the right to organise or to represent anti-war opinion, but whose practical politics merely divide and confuse both anti-war and progressive opinion in general.
In Britain however there may be one route out of the present impasse. For more than a decade before he became Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn was a major figure in the Stop the War
Coalition, serving as its Chair for four years until shortly after his assumption of the party’s leadership. In that capacity, he is regarded by millions of people as a symbol of the mass movement of opposition to Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq under Labour prime minister Tony Blair in 2003.
This in turn has brought many labour movement activists of an instinctively anti-war disposition into the Labour party’s ranks, something that should be seen as a positive development given the extent to which Tony Blair’s past leadership had infested the party with support for Western military interventions almost as a matter of principle.
As someone who represents par excellence the nationally-centred pacifist “centre ground” of the existing anti-war movement, with all of its errors of perspective, of method and of strategy, Corbyn must take his own fair share of the responsibility for its many failures, especially given his prominent national role in the Stop the War Coalition during the first four years of the Syrian revolution and civil war. Corbyn however is in a unique position not held by George Galloway, Tariq Ali, John Rees or any of the British anti-war movement’s other inherited leaders, as the twice-elected leader of Britain’s only mass working-class party, with its half a million or so members and supporters.
If Labour can make itself into the party of intransigent opposition to imperialist war and imperialist intervention, on the streets and in the workplaces and not just in the parliamentary debating-chamber, then this could bring a newer and more youthful layer of scores of thousands of party members into activity, whose spontaneously much healthier politics are still in formation, and who lack the reverence for or the historic ties to reactionary fossils like George Galloway still possessed by many of the class of 2003.
A “new anti-war movement” on this basis might at least initially begin with politics not so far removed from the existing movement’s. Corbyn’s publicly-stated politics on Syria, after all, might not be as bad as George Galloway’s or Andrew Murray’s, but it would be difficult to draw too thick a line between them and John Rees’s.
However, as a mass movement it could very quickly come to take on a life of its own, rendering irrelevant the old leaders of yesteryear and developing new ones. Shaping the politics of this new movement will still require the movement’s most conscious internationalists to wage an unremitting struggle, not just against the pro-intervention backsliding of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour right, but also against the Trump and Farage-style nationalistic isolationism, the dictator-worship, the racist Islamophobia and the tendency towards conspiratorial thinking that infests so much of present “anti-war” opinion – all of these in turn being part of the lingering legacy of Stalinism. But at least then it might be possible to have a fighting chance.
Oaklandsocialist comments: For further reading on this issue, also see:“Impeachment, Ukraine and Syria” and “The theory of permanent, or uninterrupted, revolution and Syria”