It is impossible to understand the impasse now faced by the western powers over the question of Syria without recognising the role of the anti-war movement over the past decade. In Britain, the strength of anti-war feeling is at an all time high, as people contemplate the prospect of a fourth major military intervention. This opinion is the root cause of the vote in parliament two weeks ago that resulted in a defeat for government intervention.
In the US, President Obama’s attempt to win Congress to support military intervention in Syria has fallen flat on its face, as he faces growing opposition to such a move. He has been forced at least temporarily to take a diplomatic route over the question of chemical weapons use in the civil war there.
Again, widespread public opposition has been key to an increasingly sceptical approach from US politicians to another war.
Obama’s speech to the nation yesterday, which only a few days ago looked as though it would herald an imminent military attack, was instead a combination of considering a UN deal while still threatening war if this outcome failed.
He was bounced into this by the Russians proposing that Syrian chemical weapons should be placed under international control. But this is hardly the first time that peace talks or diplomatic initiatives have been proposed. One of the key reasons they have failed before is because of US insistence on excluding either Syria’s President Assad or Iran from the negotiations.
The setbacks to Obama’s plans for a military intervention have forced him to accept this route – a route he may also have welcomed given the Congressional arithmetic. Obama was also obviously conscious of many of the arguments against war that he has faced in recent weeks. He is haunted by the ghosts of past wars:
I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.
It isn’t going to be like any of the other wars in the ‘war on terror’. John Kerry, his Secretary of State, speaking in London on Monday, claimed that an attack would be an ‘unbelievably small, limited kind of effort’. Hardly a war at all if he is to be believed.
That is a sop to anti-war opinion. But of course it isn’t true, as Obama boasted elsewhere in his address.
Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria.
Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.
We should be in no doubt therefore that behind the reluctant turn towards diplomacy, the US is still threatening war. That the western powers have been wrong footed by this development is clear from the hawkish resolution that France tried to table at the UN yesterday. The level of intervention, military and financial, within Syria is already great and the chances of the war exploding across the region are very high.
The anti-war movement has to remain mobilised. But we should also recognise what we have achieved in recent weeks: we have stopped the US and Britain from waging a war that, if the British parliament had voted the other way, would already have taken place, with who knows what consequences.
In 2003 we mobilised 2 million on the streets but failed to stop Tony Blair in his criminal attack on Iraq. We won the argument publicly but could not win the argument in parliament. We argued then that we had not stopped this war but had made it harder for future wars to take place. The past weeks have demonstrated the truth of that.
The importance of campaigning and of maintaining campaigns through the years has also been made clear. The vote for an anti-war statement and support for Stop the War at the Trades Union Congress this week is an indication.
Eleven years ago, a number of unions organised a statement against an Iraq war which won strong minority support but which defeated. In 2003 the TUC conspicuously failed to support the largest demonstration in British history. Ten years on, the argument has been won.
But winning an argument is not the same as stopping a future war. The terrible humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is being used repeatedly as an excuse for intervention by the media and by pro-war politicians. So keep mobilising.
Saturday 14 September: Stop the War's annual general meeting:
This conference will be a chance to plan further action and to debate how best to strengthen the anti-war arguments and organisation.
Speakers include: Seumas Milne, Chris Cole, Jeremy Corbyn, Lindsey German and more. Register online
Source: Stop the War Coalition