Rob Owen argues that revolutionaries need to engage with the anti-war movement that exists to build the one we need
On Tuesday 4 April two U.S. warships fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria. The airport was the base from which the Assad regime had carried out the Sarin gas attack on the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhoun – an attack that rightly drew outrage from people around the globe. The US air strike was not significant in terms of civilian casualties – the number of civilian deaths from coalition bombs in fact rose most sharply under the final months of Obama’s presidency. Nor was it significant in terms of an escalation of US attacks – the number of such attacks being relatively consistent since July 20151. What marked out the attack was the evident shift in US foreign policy from a focus on ISIS targets, and lukewarm support for weakening rebel factions, to a direct attack on the Syrian regime.
The protests called in opposition to the attack by the Stop the War Coalition were small, perhaps smaller then they could have been. But they were an important statement of intent that activists should support – despite the differences in how we understand the fate of the Syrian revolution. It is a difficult task to mobilise opposition to strikes on military targets, especially given the scale of humanitarian atrocities committed by the Syrian regime. Yet winning the argument that “humanitarian intervention” is a cover for extending US power must be an urgent task for socialists.
Trump & Watson: falling behind the establishment
Notionally the strike was about enforcing international agreements about the use of chemical weapons, but the US state has refrained from intervention after many equally abhorrent incidents in the past. In reality, the attack represented a show of intent from the US state and an attempt to align Trump and public opinion behind a more hawkish strategy in Syria. One, despite hopes of some opponents of Assad, which aims not to topple the Syrian state but to force it into greater compliance with US interests.
In the case of Trump this meant making an abrupt about turn from statements like “We’re going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia” during the primary race to falling in line behind the Republican mainstream over international politics. His raw emotional appeal ahead of the strikes bearing similarities to that of George Bush during the early stages of the war on terror. His TV address using phrases like “No child of God should ever suffer such horror” and describing the “horrible, horrible” images he’d seen of the attack, may well have been genuine, but served to pull his support base, jaded by the attrition of war abroad and neglect at home, behind a ready and willing liberal case for intervention.
The appeal for intervention found an echo in the UK and Europe with figures of the liberal and conservative establishment immediately falling behind the opportunity to strengthen their position in the region. In the UK, senior Tory ministers immediately made statements in support of the bombing with Boris Johnson cancelling a visit to Russia in deference to US diplomats and with mockery from the Russian government. Tom Watson, in his role as spokesman of the Labour right, was quick to throw his weight behind the attacks in an attempt to isolate Corbyn. That Corbyn has stayed true to his anti-war principles despite the difficulties it has posed for him as Labour leader is a testament to the legacy of the movement against war in Iraq and his own involvement in it.
Why US imperialism matters
Despite its weakening economic position relative to other world powers the US remains the only state capable of projecting its power to any corner of the globe. The growing economic power of challengers like China, built from exporting to US markets, has not yet developed into a threat to the US position as a hegemonic super power. Nonetheless challenging China’s rise has become a permanent point of concern for US policy makers. The other significant economic block, the European Union, has been in a well-documented political crisis for some time and has never developed a unified political or military means for expressing its interests relative to those of the US. The economic fragility of all three blocks was underscored by the financial crisis of 2008 which ripped through the US and European economies and where China, despite remaining relatively unscathed, refrained from any action which would further devalue its own foreign exchange reserves valued against the US dollar at around 1.95 trillion at the time of the crisis.
While remaining the single largest global economy, its decreasing share of global GDP meant the US has maintained levels of military spending amounting to around a third of total global spending to defend its position. Its spending far outstripping the other major powers in both total amount and percentage of GDP. Of direct relevance to current debates, the US’s level of spending is twenty five times that of the Russian state2. The US remains unsurpassed in its ability to overturn democratic and revolutionary movements, support repressive states and subordinate regions to its economic interests across the globe.
Putin’s power plays
This does not mean that in every instance globally the US is the predominant external threat, as was shown when Russian support enabled Assad to drown the Syrian revolution in blood. The continuing economic difficulties of US capitalism, its defeat in Iraq and the oil price boom of the 2000s allowed Putin to reverse the decline of Russian capitalism and rebuild its regional strength off the back of oil profits. The central importance of oil as a commodity in modern capitalism gives the Russian state an economic advantage that allows it to punch above its weight regionally. The authoritarian nationalism personified in Putin has maintained significant domestic support in Russian and enabled the state to spend a percentage of GDP on its military exceeded only by Israel and a number of dictatorships in the Gulf. Its total military budget of 65.6 billion dollars is the fourth largest in the world despite being dwarfed by the US. Geopolitical relationships dating back to the Soviet Union consolidated by oil profits and an aggressive military policy have enabled Russia to rebuild its influence within part of the former Eastern Block. The clash between the eastwards expansion of NATO driven by the US/EU and an emboldened Russian state have been seen first in Georgia in 2006 and more recently in Ukraine.
The combination of military defeat in Iraq, the Arab Spring and the growth of ISIS damaged the US’s ability to maintain a united policy amongst the Arab states in response to ISIS. Coupled with political opposition to the deployment of ground troops, this left the Obama administration with a weak and seemingly incoherent response to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and its mutation into civil war. The US regime was caught between its opposition to the Assad regime, a part of George Bush Jnr’s “axis of evil,” and a desperate desire to avoid further destabilisation caused by the Syrian state falling to the revolution. The result was a confused policy of tentative engagement with “respectable” elements of the Syrian resistance, attempts to broker a settlement which retained the regime but removed Assad, and balancing both strategies with maintaining its war on ISIS. The political vacuum left was filled by the Russian state, which was willing to offer full military support to its sole ally in the region. Russian military support for Assad forced the militarisation of the revolution and the gradual subordination of the social impulse of the revolt into a civil war where there could only ever be one victor.
Solidarity with Syria
In 2014, in a piece on imperialism for rs21 we wrote,
The revolutions that began in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) revealed the power of popular struggle to change the course of events. The combination of economic crisis, democratic deficit and resistance to imperialism created a potent mix which exploded onto the streets. The occupation of Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution became symbolic, spreading across the Middle East and finding an echo in social movements around the globe. The role of working class and revolutionary movements showed the social as well as economic and geopolitical aspects of imperialism. The agency of these movements and the extent they can be co-opted by foreign powers has become a recurrent issue in understanding modern conflicts in states like Syria and Ukraine.
The tragic final stages of the Arab Spring, the crushing of the Egyptian revolution and the bloodying of the Syrian uprising, make understanding its impact no less relevant. Socialists in Stop the War Coalition are wrong to write the revolution out of their analysis of recent events. Understanding the revolution, and analysing what remains of its driving force, is key to an analysis that sees the world as divided, not just between imperialist states, but between social classes. An analysis that sees the ultimate defeat of imperialism as being driven by social revolutions from below needs to place stress on understanding and maintaining a sense of solidarity with what remains of the uprising which catalysed the war in Syria as well as critiquing the politics of the organisations which coalesced out in response to its defeat. This is a point of difference with both anti-imperialists who see imperialism solely in terms of conflicts between states, and more liberal voices who may have some illusions in humanitarian intervention.
It is in maintaining a sense of solidarity that key voices in Stop the War have been found wanting. The failure to balance the task of maintaining an anti-interventionist coalition and solidarity with Syrian revolutionaries forced to flee has conceded the later ground to liberal and an increasingly bitter support for US aggression as the “lesser evil.” While the course of events may have made such a division inevitable, and the division has been utilised by more cynical elements, the failure to stake out a revolutionary analysis by leading figures in Stop the War has exacerbated the division and damaged the coalition. In a recent article for counterfire.org John Rees writes convincingly of the support of US liberals for Trump’s hawkish conversion over Syria but of the history of the revolution writes only:
The absolutely justified desire of the Syrian people to get rid of the Assad regime in 2011 gave the US and its Turkish and Gulf allies the possibility of suborning the opposition and achieving regime change by other means.
Sadly, the Free Syrian Army was willing to play this role. From its early picture opportunities alongside Hillary Clinton through to its operations against the Kurds as part of the recent Turkish offensive, and its current demand that Trump increase the bombing of Syria, it has always looked to the US for salvation. Frequent disappointment has never led to any reassessment of this policy by the FSA.
While part of a short piece, the argument here is typical of that put by leading Counterfire members since their analysis that the wave of revolution had been defeated in 2013. An argument perhaps most clearly set out here, which concludes that forces like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had become nothing more than pawns of US imperialism and attributes a coherence and consistency to US policy on regime change that has not been borne out by US actions. The analysis advanced on the Counterfire website by leading Stop the War figures fails to grapple with the disorientation and fracturing of opinion within the US state – a fracturing born of the defeat of the “Project for a New American Century” which was in part delivered by the global anti-war movement itself. Instead the analysis poses an unbroken thread of US policy that dramatically downplays the impact of the defeat in Iraq, the economic crisis of 2008 and destabilising impact of the Arab Spring’s rise and fall. Given the potential for aggression in Syria to be a temporary point of unity between wings of the US establishment this point of weakness may well at least temporarily recede in importance.
What remains the Achilles heel of the argument is its reduction of the history of forces born of the Syrian revolution to mere proxies of imperialist states. A failure to relate the genesis of the FSA, and other elements born of the revolution, to the national dynamics of resistance, as well as the intervention of outside powers, robs the analysis of any sense of the agency the revolution posed. It too easily collapses into a compromise with an analysis that sees any uprising in an “anti-imperialist” state as nothing more than a stooge of imperialism and cedes political leadership to political forces from a traditional communist tradition incapable of relating to a generation shaped by the movements of protest inspired by the Arab Spring.
Maintaining united opposition
Maintaining coalitions capable of mobilising significant social forces is often a thankless and difficult task. The need to maintain the broadest unity that is effective in mobilising social forces and determining where to draw political boundaries is hard to balance. Harder still is doing so while still raising the arguments you deem important where you know it will cause tension. It is an old adage that it is easier to break up a movement then sustain one, but ducking arguments can cause as much damage as raising differences.
At the high points of the Stop the War Coalition we benefited from an understanding that US imperialism was the biggest enemy globally that extended well beyond the movement and penetrated into popular culture – symbolised by the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair. The lack of significant social opposition in Iraq or Afghanistan to the regimes meant an analysis that operated largely at the level of states (and the global anti-war movement) was sufficient. What existed of the anti-Saddam Iraqi opposition could be rightly dismissed as US puppets without a meaningful social base. Differences between those with an official communist background and revolutionaries were primarily about levels of radicalism in the movement and theoretical difference on the question of revolution seemed distant from the immediate agenda of disrupting and disorganising New Labour’s war drive.
The situation that confronts us today is more complicated. While the potential for revolution is just as distant, its impact on events is not. The role Syrian oppositionists play, originating in mass resistance to Assad, can’t be treated as if it were synonymous with the Iraqi opposition of 2003 and must be understood as flowing from the tragedy of the uprising’s isolation. Most significantly, the space left for an more aggressive regional policy by Russia, and its role in Ukraine and Syria, means the broad consensus that the US was the sole global hegemon has been eroded and needs to be re-won through patient argument. The argument about what remains the same about the global imperial system can only be won by acknowledging what has changed in the aftermath of Iraq.
Our opposition to imperialism is not shaped purely by analysis but by practice. It is regrettable that, whatever our differences in analysis, that the emergency protests called by Stop The War over Trump’s airstrikes were not larger. If we believe that, the anti-war movement needs voices committed to remembering the potential represented by the Arab spring then the onus is on us to create that voice within the existing movement. To play that role we need to work alongside forces and individuals we may have strong disagreements with to build opposition to US and UK imperialism and argue for a strategy that can build anti-war movement we need.
- Table from airwars.org:
- Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. All figures quoted for 2015 data.