The perils of partial pacifism: the sad story of the Stop the War Coalition



The aftermath of a bomb attack in Allepo 



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.

How the world’s population is going to change

So this graph from the Economist showing how the distribution of the global population is projected to change is pretty interesting.

The stand out facts for me are:

1) Africa is expanding, whilst Europe will relatively speaking decline. In 1950, there were no African countries among the ten most populated countries in the world. By 2050, there are expected to be three. Conversely, there were four European countries – five if you count Russia – but by 2050 there won’t be any.

2) Speaking of which. Russia looks set to drop out of the top ten. Which means its claim to great power status is likely to become progressively more tenuous.

3) A nuance (or possibly more) that needs to be added to the narrative of ‘the Chinese century’ is that at some point India will replace it as the world’s most populous nation.

Why a change of regime in Sri Lanka matters for the whole world

Good riddance

It’s hard to tell if the ejection of Mahinda Rajapaska from the Sri Lankan presidency should worry Putin or Xi more.

In recent years the world has seen a growing number of elected autocracies: governments that gain and retain power through elections yet repress dissent and seek to control institutions that should be independent of it like the media and judiciary. Examples include Venezuela, Hungary and most crucially Russia. However, as of this month there is one fewer example. The election for Sri Lankan president saw Mahinda Rajapaksa, who presided over war crimes against the Island’s Tamil minority and put most of the countries key institutions under the control of members of his family, lose to his former health minister Maithrala Sirisena.

Amanda Taub at Vox explains why Mr Rajapaska’s fate may have other elected autocrats looking over their shoulder:

There is a lesson here for other autocratic rulers. If you want to hold onto power, you should be at least as worried about the people who attended your last birthday party as you are about youthful idealists’ street protests.

It’s romantic to believe that popular uprisings like the Tahrir Square protests of 2011, Russia’s White Ribbon movement of 2012, or Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013 are the most serious threat to autocrats’ power. But Sri Lanka shows that, even in the case of power transfers that seem like the result of popular movements (in this case, a democratic election), the change is often actually driven by elites shifting their loyalties to a new candidate at a key moment.

Rajapaksa was brutally effective at crushing bottom-up democratic activism in Sri Lanka. But it turns out grassroots activists weren’t the people Rajapaksa really needed to worry about. Sirisena was a close ally who was a guest at Rajapaksa’s birthday celebration a mere two days before announcing his candidacy for president. Other elites quickly shifted to Sirisena’s camp, leaving Rajapaksa without support.

The same thing could happen to just about any autocratic leader.

Consider, for example, Vladimir Putin. He enjoys extremely high approval ratings, and is a beloved figure among ordinary Russians. And there is no one in Russia who seems powerful enough to be a possible Putin replacement, or any signs that Russian elites are beginning to doubt his rule.

But the same could have been said about Rajapaksa up to the moment when Sirisena announced his candidacy. It turned out that his popularity was fragile, and reliant on quiet but crucial support from key members of Sri Lanka’s most powerful institutions. When that support eroded, so did his popularity — in less than two months.

Putin’s popularity, like Rajapaksa’s, has been manufactured by pliant state media with the assistance of key allies among the Russian elite. The same elite-run forces that bolster autocratic leaders — supportive state media, a justice system willing to overlook corruption, helpful security services — can be used to take their rule away.

NYU professor Mark Galeotti, who studies Russia, told me recently that elite abandonment is far more of a risk for Putin than are the protesters who periodically throng the streets of Moscow. The real concern for Putin, he argued, should be that Russia’s elite power players — such as the leaders of the security services and major business interests — would lose faith in him, and decide that it was time to replace him with someone who offered better prospects for the long term.

This election result illustrates potential risks for Putin. However, the autocrat it poses the greatest difficulty for – asides obviously from Mr Rajapaksa himself – is China’s Xi Jingping.

In an interview with The Economist, [new Sri Lankan foreign minister] Mr Samaraweera spelled out how he expects Sri Lanka’s place in foreign affairs to change. For a start, warmer relations with India are all but guaranteed: he describes bilateral ties as “a state of irreversible excellence”, with the “strained” relations that were experienced under Mr Rajapaksa an “aberration” that must now be forgotten. “We must put our friendship back on track…we must accept the geopolitical reality”, he says. For India the most pressing concern is the heavy influence of China in its neighbourhood, especially after China deployed a military submarine, twice, to Colombo harbour in September. China has provided billions of dollars’ worth of loans and investment for Sri Lankan infrastructure, including a southern airport at Mr Rajapaksa’s hometown which Mr Samaraweera dismisses as a “white elephant”. Such projects will now be reviewed, he says. Dubious Chinese activities—such as unsustainable tuna-fishing by Chinese boats in Sri Lankan waters—will presumably end.

Sri Lanka’s ties with Europe and America had traditionally been excellent. A large share of its trade continues to be with the European Union. But under Mr Rajapaksa, who was accused of human-rights abuses at the end of the civil war, some of those relationships became antagonistic. Mr Samaraweera describes the former president as “vilifying” the West as a form of “hysterical nationalism to command” the vote of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, despite the fact that Western powers helped to crack down on international funding and support for the Tamil Tiger separatists towards the end of the war. Now, argues the new foreign minister, it is time for Western governments to re-engage Sri Lanka much more closely. He argues that they must regard his country as having its own “Burma moment”. Myanmar (previously Burma) had been loyal to China while it was under military rule, but in recent years it has rebalanced internationally, reached out for investment and closer ties with India and the West—and been rewarded with high-profile visits and growing economic ties. Similarly, Sri Lanka is also pivoting back to take a friendlier position towards the West (Mr Samarweera is keen to emphasise there will be no hostility towards China) so the opportunity is ripe for stronger co-operation there. Mr Samaraweera will travel both to Washington, DC and to Beijing in coming weeks.

To generating cause for substantial disquiet in both Moscow and Beijing is not bad going for a small island with a population of 20 million.

Parodying Putin’s Pretext (Post I wish I had written)

The Crimea today, DC tomorrow!?

The Crimea today, DC tomorrow!?

Christian Caryl writes to Vladimir Putin (with tongue firmly in cheek) to try and avail himself of the doctrine the president has propounded to justify the invasion of Crimea. If Russia can intervene anywhere to protect Russian speakers from any threat, however, negligible; Caryl wonders if the Putin might consider intervening to protect the Russophone population of his native Washington DC from an English speaking population that is “starting to get a bit uppity”?

It so happens that I speak your language. I started studying Russian in high school, and I’ve been studying it for years since then. Maybe I’m not entirely fluent, but I know enough to follow the news.

Which is why I was so thrilled to read the Kremlin’s statement about your March 1 phone call with President Obama: “Vladimir Putin stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.” What a wonderfully elastic phrase: “the Russian-speaking population.”……….. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians speak some Russian, so just about anyone in the country is potentially in a position to enjoy your protection.

And as for potential threats to us Russian speakers — well, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? When my wife and I were speaking Russian in the supermarket checkout line today, I noticed the cashier giving us dirty looks. And we’re not alone. There are thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants in the suburbs of Washington. If we all gather together in one place, we’d definitely qualify as a “population.”

Okay, so maybe we aren’t “compatriots,” strictly speaking. But you’ve got an easy solution for that, too — you can just give us passports! As freshly minted citizens, we’ll be fully entitled to your protection.

You know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve seen those images of your officials handing out shiny new Russian passports to members of Berkut, the Ukranian riot police who are the main folks responsible for the killing of 88 demonstrators in the center of Kiev during the EuroMaidan Revolution. Now, if anyone knows how to take care of themselves, surely it’s these guys — yet you’re going out of your way to guarantee that crucial extra bit of insurance. Could there be any better example of the broad, generous Russian soul at work?

This is precisely what satire should be used for: exposing the absurdity of the positions of those in power.

Putin’s reasoning for his bundling into the Crimea may only be a pretension. However, it still holds dangers for Russia. Caryl applies it to Russian speakers in far flung places for humorous effect. It might be rather less funny if China started applying it to the large Mandarin speaking population in Russia’s far east.

The Sochi olympics will be three times the cost of the London games

As the Economist explains:

SOCHI, a subtropical resort on the Black Sea coast, seems an odd place to stage the winter Olympics. It is the warmest place in Russia, where people go to escape winter. The weather forecast for the coast where the opening ceremony will be held on February 7th is 10-12°C (50-54°F). The competitions which require snow will be held in the mountains above Sochi, where the day temperature is just above freezing. Fearing a lack of snow, Russia stored last year’s (though recent snowfalls made this insurance measure superfluous). Sochi is also on the edge of a war zone in the North Caucasus. Counter-terrorist operations are being carried out less than 200 miles away. Why did the Russians make such a curious choice?

Russian officials point out that Sochi is not the first subtropical location for the winter Olympics. Nagano in Japan, which also has a subtropical climate, hosted the games in 1998. And as for the threat of a terrorist attack, nowhere is safe these days: security measures for the London Olympics were just as stringent. That is all true. Sochi was chosen mainly because it is a favourite playground of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. He spends much time at his Sochi residence and intends the games to be seen as proof of his mastery over nature and a symbol of his international legitimacy. Yet the choice is, ironically, entirely apt in one respect. Since Soviet times Sochi has had a reputation as a brash and seedy resort, a hotspot for holiday sex and a place where black-marketers and underground entrepreneurs from across the Soviet Union spent their not-always-honestly-earned roubles. “If I knew a card trick, I’d live in Sochi,” runs an old saying. This makes it arguably the perfect place to hold the Olympics, which have become a model of Russia’s crony capitalism and a world championship of corruption. Those who won the construction contracts certainly know a trick or two.

Sochi has already set the record for the most expensive games in history. At an estimated cost of $51 billion it is five times as expensive as the winter Olympics in Nagano, the preparation for which involved the construction of arenas, roads and a bullet-train line from Tokyo. The main reason for such astronomical cost is graft. That, at least, is what nearly 50% of Russians believe, according to opinion polls. Only 15% buy the arguments made by officials that it was the complexity of the project that increased the cost. Corruption comes in different forms: overstating costs, giving contracts to friends and relatives (some of whom have no qualifications) and reworking the same construction site several times over to justify charging more. Most of the money came directly from the state or via state banks. Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and opposition politician, says the cost over-run is 150-250%. He has published lists of the main winners of the Olympic projects. The fact that some of the hotels still have not been finished makes the level of spending all the more extraordinary.

Pravda is still published


Pravda, the paper that in the days of the USSR was the voice of the Soviet Government is still being published. And after several years as a commercial operation it is once again owned by the Communist Party and is pumping out propaganda such Obama to step on Hitler’s path?, Putin overshadows blood-hungry, ‘exceptional’ Obama and Russian children get gay love books from the West.