Why you should lobby your MP to vote against arming the rebels in the Syrian civil war
On the first floor of Portcullis House, lodged in an awkward turret of this strange extension of Parliament that looks, from the outside, like a Steam Punk take on a Regency era hotel, there are three drawings by Gerald Scarfe fixed to the oak panelled walls.
The first drawing shows Churchill slumped on a Parliamentary bench, like a boxer waiting for the bell. The second is 'Thatcher Haunted by Belgrano'; we see her in bed, clinging to the duvet, a black cloud of accusing spectres hovering above - smoke issuing from a little ship on the horizon.
The third picture is the simplest. There's Tony Blair, tiny, a ball and chain as big as he is clamped to his leg: 'IRAQ' is the inscription on the iron ball.
Perhaps it wasn't so surprising then, to see Peter Hain speaking at a Stop the War meeting next door. Hain was Northern Ireland Secretary during Blair's government and a strong supporter of the Iraq War. Like the large majority of MPs, he supported Blair when it came to the vote.
Also like many MPs, he eventually turned against the war. But he opposed investigations into the war's failings, and in earlier years he was instrumental in enforcing sanctions on Iraq and the aggressive 'no-fly zone' carried over from the first Gulf War.
Now Hain is among a cross-party group of MPs pushing for a motion that the UK won't give 'lethal support' to any forces in Syria without 'explicit prior consent of Parliament'. The group includes Tory MP John Baron and is supported by former Lib Dem leader, Menzies Campbell. Chair of Stop the War, Jeremy Corbyn MP has played a key role in the initiative, which goes to the vote on Thursday.
There is a good chance the motion will win a majority in Parliament. Under attack from both Labour and Conservatives, the government's rhetoric on Syria, if not its position, is wavering. A month ago 81 Tory backbenchers wrote to the government with a demand very similar to Thursday's motion. The Labour leadership have warned against starting an arms race with Russia, and even Boris Johnson has said that 'pressing arms into the hands of maniacs' is a bad idea. In response, foreign Secretary William Hague has retreated from his earlier rhetoric of good guys versus bad guys, admitting that there are not just two sides to the conflict.
Hague insists that we can't rule out sending arms, but the tenor of the argument is a step down from a few weeks ago when the government was openly discussing a no-fly zone in response to revelations about Assad's supposed use of Sarin gas, revelations which remain speculative.
Of course Boris Johnson's argument against intervention comes from a right wing position, based on the logic of the war on terror: what we are meant to fear more than anything else is 'al-Qaeda affiliated thugs'. And Hague's wavering plays to the same idea: the fighting strength of groups like the Al-Nusra front is precisely why Britain has to intervene; we have to counterbalance their strength by arming the opposition's more western-friendly elements. This is the logic of the madhouse, but it demonstrates a weakness of the interventionists: they risk getting mired in the complexities of this conflict before they've even properly started.
But this risk is ours as well. Laying bare the logic of this war is a lot harder than it was with Iraq. It's both a civil war and a much larger imperialist war. And tying these two scales together is a regional war involving Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and the Gulf States - to list only the countries involved in direct military intervention.
That's one reason why Stop the War's parliamentary meeting last week was valuable. Coming at the problem from several angles, from speakers as varied as Hain and Iraqi dissident Sami Ramadani, the meeting was a great clarifier and provided some very useful ammunition for taking the fight to the warmongers. Here are just 3 points from the meeting, noted down in a hurry:
- Fighting is taking place on every single one of Syria's borders. The conflict is already a regional war. The dangers of it exploding into something truly terrifying should be clear for all to see. Military intervention adds fuel to the fire.
- However vile the Assad regime, he is not merely a detested figurehead or puppet. The regime has a base. This base is increasingly consolidated along sectarian lines, with religious and ethnic minorities backing the regime out of fear of what might replace it. But it is not just Alawites and Christians who support Assad. Aleppo and Damascus, which together count for at least 25% of the population, also largely back the regime. Even if Britain did decide to arm the opposition - and it's already doing so covertly and by proxy - even if it went public in the way the US did recently, it would still take more than small arms and rocket launchers to topple Assad, which is what is being talked about at the moment.
- The House of Commons library briefing on Syria states that military intervention could be illegal according to the UN Charter and the UK Terrorism Act. We're used to Western governments breaking international law, but now it seems that not even the laws invented for the express purpose of prosecuting the war on terror can accommodate this new intervention.
Banking on the government tying itself in knots over Syria is not enough; we have to sharpen our own arguments. Moreover relying on MPs to take a stand is also not enough. Iraq taught us that and more. The weight of antiwar opinion built up over Iraq is a major factor restraining Western governments today and pushing MPs to go against the government line. Less than a quarter of people in the UK support arming the opposition. In Thatcher's day wars were vote winners; today they're vote losers.The interventions in Libya and Mali were attempts to rehabilitate the idea of humanitarian intervention. To a limited extent they succeeded, but the bulwark of domestic opposition has been chipped and not shattered. We need to make sure it isn't eroded further, and we need to build on the sizeable but largely dormant antiwar feeling that already exists. That means taking arguments like the ones thrashed out in Thursday's Parliamentary meeting to a large audience - with social media and citizen journalism, with petitions and public meetings, with protests and demonstrations.
A small but important first step is lobbying MPs to vote for the 'consent of Parliament' motion on Thursday.
Source: Stop the War Coalition