The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) is in moral meltdown and in the throes of a rebellion by many of its longtime supporters – including me – over its one-sided Syria protests and its persistent failure to listen to appeals from democratic, anti-war and civil society activists inside Syria. The air strikes by presidents Assad and Putin on apartments, markets, hospitals, schools, mosques, civil rescue teams and aid convoys are war crimes that echo Guernica, Dresden and Cambodia. So where are the protest marches by Britain's leading anti-war organisation?
Ridiculed by some as the “stop the Western war coalition”, disenchantment with the organisation has become widespread since the summer and is spreading to longtime, loyal supporters who were once its bedrock. Last month Muslim activists privately pressed its leaders to more strongly and publicly condemn Assad and Putin’s war crimes – to no avail. They were palmed off with the usual excuses: that condemning the UK and US is the anti-war movement’s first duty and top priority. As if it can’t protest both!
The coalition won’t even campaign for airdrops of food and medical supplies to besieged civilians. It seems they’d rather see hungry, sick families die than taint themselves with the “imperialist collaboration” of supporting Western humanitarian aid. In a breathtaking display of double standards, they supported aid convoys to refugees in Calais but not to those in Aleppo. No wonder the movement is increasingly discredited.
Stop the War Coalition’s annual conference in October was heckled by protesters who condemned the organisation – and its keynote speaker, Jeremy Corbyn – for not mobilising against the indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo, and other war crimes, by Syria’s president Assad and his Russian allies. Just before the conference, an open letter to Corbyn, signed by Labour party and Momentum activists, criticised his failure to condemn these war crimes and to push for humanitarian aid to the besieged civilian populations.
Symptomatic of the rot at the heart of Stop the War Coalition is former chair Andrew Murray’s article published in the Morning Star in October. A leading official in the anti-war movement, Murray blasted the West but didn’t even mention Russia’s mass killing of women and children in Syria.
The coalition is, or was, one of the great “people power”, progressive social movements of the past half-century. It mobilised millions against the Iraq war. I was a supporter from the outset. I salute much of what the coalition has done and achieved since its formation in 2001. It has been right on foreign and military policy more times than successive British governments. But on Syria the movement has lost its way, big-time.
It pains me to say this: Stop the War Coalition has betrayed the Syrian people who protested peacefully for democracy in 2011 and have been massacred by Assad ever since. The principles of internationalist solidarity have been dumped. Responding to critics it its own ranks, the coalition belatedly, and somewhat mutedly, condemned the Assad and Putin bombing of civilians but has never organised a march against them. Indeed, although quick to demonstrate in opposition to any and all Western interventions, the coaltion has failed to even once rally against the military intervention in Syria by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Chris Nineham, STWC vice-chair, rejected calls to organise protests against Russia, saying his organisation’s focus “is on what our Government is doing” and that protesting Russia “wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference as to what Putin does.” The organisation never offered that reasoning when alerted to US war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. It rightly protested loud and clear.
The Syrian war has, so far, resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being killed and more than 11 million people being displaced, wounded, or tortured – most of them civilians. A staggering 11.5 per cent of the entire population have suffered injury or death. In what could be seen as a bid to deflect criticism from the Assad tyranny, STWC has portrayed Isis as the main threat to Syrians. This is nonsense.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Assad’s forces were responsible for 96 per cent of the more than 180,000 civilian deaths, including more than 18,000 children, between March 2011 and November 2015. Isis certainly is murderous but it accounted for only 3 per cent of civilian fatalities, with 3 per cent of civilian deaths due to other military forces, including rebels and the US-led coalition. You’d never know this from reading the blogs on the STWC website.
An updated report last month by the SNHR documented that the civilian death toll since 2011 has now risen to 202,973, and that 188,729 of these fatalities can be attributed to Assad’s forces. This exposé was dismissed by many coalition supporters as “Western propaganda.” Some smeared the SNHR as “CIA stooges” and “agents of imperialism.” The SNHR report also revealed that 86 per cent of the 23,863 children killed, and 88 per cent of the 22,823 women killed in the conflict, were murdered by the regime, which was also responsible for 99 per cent of the 12,836 deaths under torture.
In a survey of Syrian refugees in Germany, conducted by Syrian NGOs under the supervision of the Berlin Social Science Centre, 70 per cent said they fled Syria to escape Assad, not Isis. But the coalition prefers to shout against Isis.
The Russians, who ostensibly came to Syria to fight Isis have, in fact, massacred more civilians than the Isis terrorists. They are in Syria as an army of occupation, propping up a fascist regime; echoing the way the US intervened in Vietnam to sustain the Saigon tyranny. Russia is the new imperialist thug on the block, but the anti-imperialists of STWC look the other way and do nothing.
Echoing the “we know best” neo-colonial smugness of the Western establishment, STWC has refused requests to have Syrian democrats and left-wingers opposed to Assad speak at its Syria events; but it has offered a platform to Syrians Issa Chaer and Mother Agnes, who have respectively defended the Damascus regime and claimed that allegations of chemical attacks by Assad’s forces are fabricated. This perceived policy of exclusion was highlighted at the November 2015 STWC public meeting on Syria in the House of Commons, chaired by Diane Abbott. No Syrians were allowed on the speaker’s panel – at a meeting about Syria!
Some anti-war and anti-Assad Syrian democrats went to the meeting anyway, but were not invited to speak. When they eventually shouted out in frustration, they were jeered, and smeared by some as warmongers – falsely accused of wanting the West to bomb and invade. STWC stewards tried to eject them.
One of the invited speakers at that meeting was Tory MP Crispin Blunt. Although he said he opposed military intervention, he stressed that air strikes and troops on the ground would be necessary in the end to defeat Isis. In other words, he was ultimately pro-war and he later did vote for the UK bombing campaign. Despite favouring military intervention, he was given a Stop the War Coalition speaking slot but anti-war Syrian democrats were not.
When it came to questions from the floor, Green MP Caroline Lucas urged that the Syrians be allowed to speak. Her request was ignored. She later cited this suppression of Syrian voices as one of the reasons she ended her official role in the coalition. Near the end of the meeting, I personally appealed to Diane Abbott to let the Syrians have their say but she refused and closed the meeting early rather than allow the Syrians to be heard. Even if the coalition believed the Syrians were wrong, as a fundamental principle of democratic open debate, they should have been given a chance to speak.
BBC2’s Daily Politics show later highlighted this silencing of Syrian voices by the coalition. Syrian democrats complain that the coalition always protests against Western intervention but has failed to support demonstrations against the Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah military interference in Syria, which has escalated the conflict and led to the rising civilian death toll.
In its defence, the coalition says its main purpose and effectiveness is to challenge UK Government war policies; to hold our own Government to account. I agree. But surely this does not preclude also protesting war crimes and tyranny by other parties to the Syria conflict. Can’t they do both? Such consistency would give the anti-war movement greater authority and credibility – making it more impactful and effective.
What’s more, despite its claims to only back protests against the UK Government and not against the policies of other governments, the coalition has commendably supported demonstrations against the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, against President Sisi’s dictatorship in Egypt and against the Israeli attack on Gaza. It has also championed laudable causes completely unrelated to its anti-war remit, including the “Refugees Are Welcome” demonstration in March and the anti-austerity protests at October’s Tory party conference.
Just last week STWC published a stinging critique of Louise Casey’s report on integration and cohesion in Britain. It seems they’ve got an opinion on everything, but are unwilling to campaign against Assad and Putin’s barbarities in Syria, which constitute some of the biggest war crimes since the US carpet-bombed Cambodia in the 1970s.
So why, exactly, is the coalition willing to rally against so many diverse injustices but not against those by the Syrian and Russian regimes? It has led many critics, including some on the left, to accuse them of collusion and being apologists. Perhaps these inconsistencies are one reason for the movement’s dwindling public support. The December 2015 “Stop Bombing Syria” national demonstration in London drew less than 5,000 people. This is much smaller than STWC protests a few years ago, which often ran from 20,000 to 100,000 people.
There were also significantly fewer Muslims present, prompting one coalition insider to confide to International Business Times that many Muslims were feeling alienated by an organisation that is perceived to mostly turn a blind eye to the Assad dictatorship and that has failed to actively campaign against the mass slaughter of Muslim civilians by his regime.
As well as systematically ignoring war crimes committed by Assad’s forces, STWC supporters have, to my face, misrepresented and dismissed the Syrian civil society opposition to Assad as jihadi extremists and imperialist cheerleaders.
They imply there are no democrats and left-wingers in Syria; erroneously depicting the conflict as being solely between Assad, US-backed Islamist rebels, Isis and other fanatics. This invisibilises and marginalises the non-violent, secular, democratic, local community and non-aligned opposition to Assad’s tyranny. These progressive oppositionists include the Local Coordination Committees, Planet Syria, the White Helmets and many other civic organisations based inside Syria who daily risk their liberty and life in defence of democratic and humanitarian ideals. They oppose both Assad and Isis but get no support or solidarity from the coalition.
Another tactic favoured by defenders of STWC is to defame groups like Syria Solidarity UK as US stooges, militarists and neo-cons – even though many of their members are anti-war, left-wing and anti-imperialist.
In the run-up to the parliamentary vote on air strikes in Syria last December, I wrote an article setting out why I opposed the push for war and David Cameron’s proposals to bomb Isis. I argued that far from stopping Isis attacks on the UK, as Cameron claimed, air strikes could provoke retaliation, making such attacks more likely. They also risked radicalising a new generation of Muslims in Britain and Syria, pushing them into the arms of Islamist extremists.
This did not stop STWC activists from later denouncing me face-to-face as a “warmonger, “bomber Tatchell” and “the mouthpiece of America.”
To substantiate this accusation, they misrepresented my call, which echoed that of democratic Syrian civil society organisations, for the UN General Assembly to use resolution 377A (Uniting for Peace) to override the Security Council to mandate no-bombing zones, civilian safe havens and humanitarian aid corridors.
They claimed these proposals would require bombing and this would make matters worse for civilians. In fact, this call is a bid to stop Assad and Putin’s bombing, which would save many lives.
STWC is rightly concerned about the civilian casualties that would ensue, and are ensuing, from Western bombing missions. I share that concern and oppose those missions. But the number of civilians killed by US-led coalition air strikes (at least 459 in 2014-15, according to the Airwars project), is dwarfed by the total of more than 200,000 civilians killed since 2011 – the vast majority by the Assad regime.
Losing all perspective and proportionality, STWC organises demos against the US-led coalition forces responsible for the death of hundreds of people but not against Assad who has killed nearly 200,000. Nor does it rally against the Russian bombing campaign, with its indiscriminate use of illegal cluster and phosphorous bombs.
In the year to September 2016, Russian air strikes killed 3,264 civilians, including 911 children and 619 women – many times more than the number killed in the same period by the US-led coalition, which STWC ceaselessly protests against. Aren’t its protests somewhat one-sided and disproportionate?
For more than three years, and particularly during the Vienna peace talks in 2015, Syrian civil society organisations appealed to the US, Russia and the UN to agree to no-bombing zones to save civilian lives by marking out populated areas where air strikes would be forbidden.
STWC repeatedly rejected this appeal, arguing that enforcement of a no-bombing zone would result in civilian deaths. Yes. It might. But innocents are already dying in their thousands. Even Nato’s months of aerial attacks in Libya, which went beyond a no-bombing zone and are not a model to emulate, resulted only 72 confirmed civilian fatalities, according to Human Rights Watch (though the real figure was probably higher).
What is worse: no-bombing zones that could result in a couple of hundred non-combatants dying or the continuation of the current Assad and Putin attacks that have resulted in scores of thousands of civilian casualties? If no-bombing zones had been enforced three years ago, they would have by now saved many times more lives than may have been lost in their enforcement.
Writing in The Guardian, Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition, remained adamant: “The answer to the misery of the people of Aleppo... is not a no-fly [no bombing] zone, which in fact entails military intervention… All that this will bring to the people of Aleppo is more suffering.”
But this is not the view of Syrian civil society organisations, whose appeals STWC continues to arrogantly disregard. By not supporting no-bombing zones, this coalition is, by default, giving Assad and Putin a free hand to continue bombing civilian areas – a bizarre and, some would say, shameful stance for a supposedly anti-war organisation.
Stop the War Coalition failed to respond to multiple requests for an interview and/or comments in response to the accusations in this article.
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