Building an anti-war movement

Pete Cannell reflects on the debates surrounding Syria and suggests how we move forward.

Zaatari Camp in Jordan, home to 80,000 Syrian refugees

What should we say and do about Syria?  There’s a debate on the left.  But in my view it’s a debate that’s polarized, trapped in a bubble and incapable of reaching the wider layers of people that are needed to build an anti-war movement.  This plays into the hands of the Tories and those who are looking for sticks to beat Corbyn.

We should be proud of the anti-war movement that we built in the early years of this century.  For a while it united most of the left and engaged with a popular mood that permeated British society.  We didn’t stop the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but we did influence the way events unfolded.  The Stop the War Coalition was able to bring together, and sustain, an alliance between socialists, Muslims and the peace movement that remains historically important. But it was a worldwide movement too.  In the Middle East its inspiration coalesced with anger at the Israeli occupation of Palestine, anger at the impact of neo-liberal policies and dreams of freedom to spark the Arab Spring.

However, the movement of the early 2000s was built in very specific political conditions.  The US was militarily pre-eminent, although its share of world economic output was in decline. It saw a military response to 9/11 as the critical step on the road to the New American Century.  Things didn’t work out as they planned.

Syrians took to the streets in 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt and driven by a similar combination of economic hardship and hopes for greater democracy.  The response of Assad was brutal.  The US and its allies hated the Arab Spring and certainly were not going to support a revolution from below.  But they did fund and support individuals and organisations who they thought might form a more compliant alternative to Assad.  From the beginning, Russia supported Assad with supplies, spares and arms. Later, this became a much more active military role.  It’s unlikely that Assad would have survived without this support; certainly his ability to wreak large-scale death and destruction would have been limited. Both Western and regional powers have also intervened, with the only consistent feature being a desire to lever the maximum strategic advantage.

The result, most directly from Assad’s assaults, is a million refugees, with more than half the population displaced from their homes, and a quarter of a million dead.  Russia supports and joins in with Assad’s bombing of civilians.  What they do is simply what the US does: remember Fallujah, Gaza, and many more?  The shattered cities of Syria are what war looks like in the twenty-first century.

To mobilise large numbers in an international movement against war, we need a coherent explanation of why things are as they are.  That was one of our strengths in 2003.  The divisions on the left impede this today.  It’s correct to identify the leading role that the US (with the UK) has played in propping up and arming dictators, sustaining the Israeli state, military interventions and committing war crimes – remember Abu Ghraib and Fallujah? But military intervention in the Middle East is now multi-polar.  The barrel bombs carried by helicopters maintained by Russian supplies are real.  The Russian role in air strikes is real.  It’s not good enough to downplay or ignore this as Western Propaganda.

We live in an imperialist state that is the second largest supplier of arms in the world and we have a duty to put opposition to our own government at the centre of our activity.  The Stop the War Coalition is absolutely right to condemn the British Government and particularly their recent shift towards larger scale military intervention.  And right to argue that a US-enforced no-fly zone is not the answer.  However, none of this means that we should be silent about the role that Assad and the Russians play. It really isn’t hard to distinguish a principled anti-war position from anything that Boris Johnson says.

What can we do?  The suggestions I make here owe a lot to friends and comrades.  We need debate and we need action, both of which should be geared to building the movement and engaging with the pressing needs of the moment.  I’d suggest that we should focus on:

  • The refugee crisis in the Middle East created by war in Syria (and Yemen).  
  • The political crisis in Europe over the inadequate and brutal response to the movement of a small fraction of all the refugees and growing racism and xenophobia.  
  • The humanitarian crisis caused by five years of war and the bombing of Aleppo.
  • Campaigning for an end to all bombing and foreign intervention.

We know from the bitter experience of the last decade and more that the western powers, Russia and Assad have no interest in responding adequately, and are likely to continue to make matters worse on the ground.  Forcing them to change tack requires mass protest.  Building that isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.  In our favour there are still very many people who distrust the government on war, peace and military intervention.

So what do specific demands look like? Here are some thoughts:

  • An end to all outside military intervention.  
  • An end to arms sales to the Middle East (an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia would be a good start).
  • A massive increase in humanitarian assistance  (spend the arms money on food, shelter, medicine and education – do this in Europe and in the Middle East).
  • An end to the persecution of private citizens and organisations who organise aid to Syria.
  • Take in many more refugees.

Building a mass campaign requires imagination, persistence and willingness to debate ideas.  Given their experience, it’s not surprising that some Syrians look to western powers to intervene militarily.  This would be a disaster, which would further entrench the conditions that gave rise to the war in first place.  But it’s surely possible to be clear and principled about a position of no intervention while also being prepared to discuss, debate and organise with people who are not convinced of it.  We also need to build international links.  The debates at the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 were critical to the way the movement against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan developed.  We don’t currently have that forum but we should look for every opportunity for international cooperation and solidarity.


  1. Yesterday, the right in Labour scuppered a bill to condemn Saudi bombing in Yemen because, according to Blairite John Woodcock, British armed forces help train the Saudi army to, “create fewer civilian casualties”. Many of these MP’s support British military intervention to implement “no fly zones” in Syria. More civilian casualties are the logic of this so-called “limited” or “humanitarian” military intervention and the left, where ever they come from, should reject that solution.

  2. If the NUS and left didn’t turn up, as Tatchell claims, it’s probably because they don’t support military intervention by either Russia or the West.

  3. “Certainly what the White Helmets do counts as humanitarian assistance.” Most of what the ~400 revolutionary councils that govern rebel-held areas do with millions of dollars in U.S. State Department funding also counts as humanitarian assistance — and yet the author characterizes (actually smears) them as them as the “compliant alternative to Assad.”

    I agree, let’s be fair — no one knows where the author stands on the U.S.-funded White Helmets and revolutionary councils.

  4. Let’s be fair — Pete did call for “A massive increase in humanitarian assistance (spend the arms money on food, shelter, medicine and education – do this in Europe and in the Middle East).” Certainly what the White Helmets do counts as humanitarian assistance. I don’t think he was denouncing them.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here