What does it mean to stop a war that started years ago? That is the dilemma currently facing the Stop the War coalition.
I first came across the organisation way back in 2003. I was a tree amongst the forest of anti-Iraq war protestors in Hyde Park. In that context, ‘stop the war’ had a very clear and direct meaning. The ‘war’ was the one that would shortly commence in Iraq. Conscious decisions were being taken in Western capitals to start it, and if they were reversed then it would have been stopped. However, the further removed from that moment we become, the less evident the coalition’s purpose becomes. As this guest post by my friend Robert Knapp demonstrates, nowhere are anti-war slogans less adequate than Syria. And the resulting strain is revealing troubling things about Stop the War’s underlying ideology:
The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been displaced with the impact spreading into the neighbouring states of Iraq (with the rise of IS), Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Tragically at the time of writing, the war shows no sign of abating. It has been exacerbated by many foreign actors. At present, A US led coalition is conducting a wide ranging air campaign against the so called Islamic State; while the government of Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower, is continuing its attempts to crush the remaining rebel groups in the besieged city of Aleppo. Regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf states are also deeply involved and implicated. With peace talks progressing nowhere and the horrors of war only seeming to increase, the need for a peaceful solution and the accompanying calls for an end to the conflict only seem more critical. In this context, we should welcome those who oppose the war; support refugee resettlement programs; contribute to aid projects and search for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Despite this I find the behaviour of the Stop the War Coalition (SWC) regarding the Syrian Civil War unconscionably partial and inadequate. They are almost entirely concerned with decrying Western influence, and particularly the collateral damage inflicted by Western airstrikes against the so called Islamic State. They have remained largely silent on the devastating casualties caused by Russian and Syria air strikes. This has been particularly clear in recent weeks following the devastating bombardment of the besieged city of Aleppo.
This inconsistency has been noted by many, including the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who called on the group to protest outside the Russian Embassy. In response, the SWC’s chairman, Andrew Murray wrote that: ‘We stretch out our hands to all those in Russia, the USA, Turkey, Iran and France opposing their own governments military interference in Syria, none of which have brought anything other than more suffering and loss of life for the Syrian people.’ However, he explained that the SWC would not be organising any protests themselves other than those against the actions of the British government.*
While a British organisation focusing on the British government might seem like a reasonable stance, it not actually one the SWC adheres to. Their constitution states that the SWC’s chief aim is: ‘to stop the war(s) currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism’. It also regularly targets Israel, France, Saudi Arabia and other Western countries. This a perfectly reasonable thing for an anti-war organisation to do but it doesn’t not fit with the SWC’s claim that their scope is limited to their own country and that consequently they must leave the protesting of Russia’s military actions to Russian peace organisation.
This is part of a broader pattern whereby anti-war movements in the West focus on Western actions to the exclusion of wars more generally. Whenever the UK, US and their allies have entered into armed conflicts since September 11th 2001, that has always led to mass protests, rallies and media campaigns organised by groups like the SWC. Russian invasions of Georgia and the Crimea during produced no such reaction. Nor has its connivance with the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to crush the moderate opposition to Assad’s regime. At best these acts of aggression were greeted with silence and at worst they have been excused.
Syria’s Civil War has emerged as the prime example of this hypocrisy. Since November last year Russia has been contributing substantial artillery, Special Forces and, above all, air power elements to support the Syrian government in their attempts to crush the main non-IS rebel movements in the country despite claiming that they are geared towards the fight against Islamic State. In recent months this highly successful intervention has returned to the top of the news bulletins because of the scale of air strikes targeting Aleppo. This has particularly focused upon the number of hospitals targeted and the devastating air strike on an aid convoy which evidence points towards being carried out by either Syrian or Russian aircraft. At the same time a separate air campaign has been being conducted by a US led coalition against the forces of Islamic State in eastern Syria and Iraq.
The SWC has been insistently protesting this latter campaign, largely on the grounds that it has inflicted large civilian casualties. They have mostly remained silent on Russian actions except when to compare them to the horrors Western air strikes. Due to this one might assume that Russian bombs were not killing Syrian civilians or at least leading to fewer civilian casualties than American ones. In fact, the opposite is true. The Guardian has reported on the tracking of casualties by the organisation Airwars which shows that:
‘Over 3,600 civilian deaths [have been] caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods (Chris Woods, the director of Airwars) described as an “absolute minimum”.
In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups. “That means the Russians’ death rate probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one,” Woods said.
He added that the toll from Russian airstrikes may rise because the group’s analysts, who comb through each reported case of a civilian death to verify the attacks, were struggling to keep up with the pace of attacks.
“We are running a huge backlog of cases because the Russians are alleged to have killed so many civilians.”
As these figures clearly show Western air strikes have been substantially less brutal and harmful to civilians than those conducted by the Russian armed forces. While every civilian death is always a tragedy, a distinction needs to be made between the horrific accidents the United States, Britain and their allies make and the Russian air force’s: deliberate targeting of hospitals; destruction of aid convoys; obfuscation and denials of any civilian casualties being inflicted at all and follow up strikes targeting rescue teams trying to help the wounded of previous strikes. To be concerned only with Western air strikes and not Russian ones is perverse and an indicator of a worldview that not only assumes the West is always the villain but does not allow anyone anti-western to be villainous.
As Jonathan Freedland has written:
‘Pity the luckless children of Aleppo. If only the bombs raining down on them, killing their parents, maiming their friends, destroying their hospitals – if only those bombs were British or, better still, American. Then the streets of London would be jammed with protestors demanding an end to their agony. Trafalgar Square would ring loud with speeches from Tariq Ali, Ken Loach and Monsignor Bruce Kent. Whitehall would be a sea of placards, insisting that war crimes were being committed and that these crimes were Not in Our Name. Grosvenor Square would be packed with noisy protestors outside the US embassy, urging that Barack Obama be put on trial in The Hague. The protestors would wear Theresa May masks and paint their hands red. And they would be doing it all because, they’d say, they could not bear to see another child killed in Aleppo.
But that is not the good fortune of the luckless children of that benighted city. Their fate is to be terrorised by the wrong kind of bombs, the ones dropped by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. As such, they do not qualify for the activist sympathy of the movement that calls itself the Stop the War Coalition. Indeed, it’s deputy chair, Chris Nineham, told the Today programme that his organisation would not be organising or joining any protests outside the Russian embassy because that would merely fuel the “hysteria and the jingoism” currently being whipped up against Moscow. Stop the War would instead, explained Nineham in a moment of refreshing candour, be devoting its energies to its prime goal – “opposing the west”.’
Pacifism has a long and honourable tradition stretching back to the Buddha and Christ, that takes in the Conscientious Objectors to World War One and the protestors against the Vietnam War. To campaign for the end of war and conflict is commendable but that is not what the SWC does. It seems to be much more concerned with opposing the West than with the horror of conflict itself, even if many of its members do hold that highly laudable aim. It revels in castigating Western military operations while ignoring or making apologies for the actions of non-Western powers carrying out much worse actions. It is very rare for Boris Johnson and Jonathan Freedland to be in agreement but they are right to call out the Stop the War coalition for its rank hypocrisy on this issue. The world needs a just and principled peace movement but it is clear the Stop the War coalition cannot be part of it.
*Editors note: Andrew Murray is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain who has previously defended Stalin and expressed solidarity with North Korea.