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Still fighting the last war: Syria and the Western peace movement

The anti-war movement is struggling to find its place in a multipolar world in which stopping the war requires new thinking

When I was five years old, a very small Vietnamese man came to my bedside to say goodnight. He was the Vietnamese ambassador, and he had a very kindly, wrinkled smile, and, as I later discovered, both he and his wife were veterans of the very long war in Vietnam against foreign occupiers. He himself had crawled under barbed wire fences to set explosives under French war planes during the early 1950s. His wife, also diminutive, had been the 16-year-old leader of an anti-aircraft unit that helped bring down enemy planes during the conflict, which back in 1973 was still ongoing.

My father, a lifelong communist, had visited North Vietnam in 1972 as part of a British trade union delegation. They had visited the sites of US bombing raids, and seen the wreckage of US planes brought down by the Vietminh in the jungles of Vietnam. The trip was hard going, I recall him explaining, with all the insects and jeeps juddering on mud tracks through the jungle that played hell with his back.

This encounter was one of my first introductions to world politics. It was an era of victories for the international left and anti-colonial forces. America was the predominant world power – the enemy of enemies – but it was in retreat.

Soviet troops that had been posted in Afghanistan leave in the late 1980s (AFP)
By the end of the 1970s, the mood had darkened. Soviet tanks had rolled into Afghanistan, Poland was under martial law and there were Cruise missiles on the way from America to confront Brezhnev in Europe. It was a time of fear. Would the Russians send tanks into Poland? No one knew. Nuclear annihilation was the logical end game of Cold War brinkmanship hanging over millions.

It is easy to forget how dangerous things felt when Ronald Reagan joked off camera in 1984: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

This was the year when the Soviets shot down a South Korean jet that had strayed into its territory and the two superpowers faced off across multiple fronts. Then came Gorbachev, and the gradual unwinding of a 40-year conflict.

At the time, on the left, it seemed clear that the American empire was the major aggressor on the world stage, and though the Soviets were suffering from economic stagnation and military overstretch, their historic support for the liberation movements around the world put them on the right side of history.

The age of uncertainty

Fast forward 30 years, and such apparent clarity about world events is a distant memory. As a fortysomething British leftist, I have long questioned some of these certainties. For a start, Russia is now a post-imperial oligarchic state. It is in a new cold war with the West, but its alliances have nothing to do with liberation and everything to do with cold-hard geopolitics and state interests.

Russia began its imperial warmongering against Muslims in the dying years of the Soviet Union, when it went to aid the revolutionary government of Afghanistan. In echoes of the Syria conflict, the Soviets found themselves battling Western-funded Islamist fighters, both locals and jihadist fighters from the wider Muslim world come to defend their brothers from the godless communists. This bloody war cost the lives of at least 1.3 million Afghans and, until Syria, created the biggest refugee crisis of the recent era, sending six million Afghans – a third of the population – fleeing to neighbouring countries. It also precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, the seeds of an ongoing conflict between Russia and Islamists, which then as now often suited the West, were sewn in the mountains of Afghanistan, before moving to Chechnya and now to Syria. Russia fought two bloody wars in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, when Putin’s counterinsurgency war finally scattered the militant Islamists after a bloody conflict leaving more than 100,000 dead.

In my childhood, socialism first meant fighting for peace. No sooner had the Cold War ended, we found ourselves opposing the new war in the Gulf. That New World Order war has continued – hot and cold, starting in Iraq and Afghanistan and spreading ever wider since 9/11.

The 1990s did teach the world something about the perils of intervention and non-intervention. The Bosnian war continued for four years until the Srebrenica massacre led to a western intervention that did indeed stop the bloodshed. It also led to a kind of occupation and permanent division in the former Yugoslavia, and was also a further training ground for jihadist forces before the watershed events of 2001. Meanwhile in Africa, Western UN forces stood by while the most efficient genocide in history was carried out unhindered in Rwanda.

We didn't stop the war

The Syria war has by now taken more lives than the US-led invasion of Iraq, based on a comparison of the most comprehensive studies of both conflicts. Despite this, I have had a number of conversations with pro-Russian leftists who believe that what Putin is doing in Syria is a necessary corrective to the expansion of Western power and regime-change strategies that have rolled out since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, taking in an arc of countries from Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.

But at what cost comes being right when your success in opposing a war in Syria still leaves half a million dead and 11 million displaced?

Stop the War’s Lindsey German recently wrote in Middle East Eye that the organisation had been proven right and right again. But at what cost comes being right when your success in opposing a war in Syria still leaves half a million dead and 11 million displaced? Her answer seemed to be: "It wasn’t me guv," which sounds rather like the UKIP line: "keep out of it, it’s not our war" (even though it is).

If this is the answer, the question is clearly wrong. Calling for the end of foreign intervention in Syria, as Stop the War does, would mean disengaging the 11 or so states currently involved in the conflict, including the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others. And that would still leave the small matter of the Syrian people’s need for a government that is not engaged in systematic war crimes against the populace.

Former inhabitants of Svey Rieng province return to their native villages from the "communes" after liberation of Cambodia by Vietnam and Cambodia allies in February 1979 (AFP)
What is lacking today is an international system that steps in to stop wars dead, and keeps the warring parties apart until a settlement emerges, rather than stand by while the slaughter continues, or actively join in. The responsibility to protect, a recent addition to international protocols on humanitarian responsibilities of UN members, is a sound one, even if thus far it has been ignored. Indeed, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow Pol Pot, it was a good example of an invasion justified to end genocide, even if it came too late for many. The West condemned it.

I agree with Stop the War’s scepticism toward Western politicians’ outrage over Syrians’ suffering, inasmuch as politicians use moral arguments to disguise the normal business of great power politics. But that is not the same as making the leap to eliding vast atrocities in the name of a larger strategic imperative, such as resisting Israeli-US plans for regional domination.

Whose lives matter?

It has always been the mark of a certain school of Marxism-Leninism that the preciousness of human life is a flexible calculus, superseded by the larger anti-imperialist struggle. In this universe, the value and dignity of human beings is not inalienable, but depends where they are positioned in the struggle. This moral flexibility can take you on a journey toward the killing fields of a war like Syria.

For centuries, the West has divided humanity into full human beings and partial ones

In some senses, old-style Leninists are no different than the folks in the State Department and the Foreign Office who operate multi-fronted strategies to win the battle of hearts and minds while also seeking to see their forces win on the battlefield. The difference could be that liberal imperialists pay lip service to the idea that civilian casualties should be avoided at all costs.

Marxists scorn liberal handwringing, which is seen as a form of bourgeois hypocrisy and lying. After all, no one can start a war without killing civilians, including democratic leaders, hence the push to put Tony Blair and George W Bush in the Hague. And no US president, even those with unearned Nobel prizes, can avoid becoming a mass killer within a few weeks of taking office, since the US state is like a rogue killing machine that can’t be stopped no matter how good the driver.

US President George W Bush smiles alongside former British Prime Minister Tony Blair before the president presents him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, January 2009 (AFP)
For centuries, the West has divided humanity into full human beings and partial ones. This structural racism, which justified colonialism, slavery and imperialist war, has to some extent been tempered in recent times as universal human rights have become something that elected leaders must be seen to care about. 

However, in vindication of Marxism, profit still trumps human rights, and nowhere is this more so than in the sale of weapons to unsavoury allies and the permanent war on terror that the West is engaged in.

While for the capitalist, Marx said, “there is not a crime at which it will scruple” for 300 percent profit, the ruling ideas of the left ought to be justice, humanity and solidarity. Half a century ago, the great revolutionary thinkers Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were still on people’s lips, while others looked admiringly to leaders such as Stalin and Mao before terrible revelations brought them low.

But in times such as our own, with Hugo Chavez gone and Castro, an ageing revolutionary treasure in a post-communist hiatus, the revolution is lacking a figurehead. In such a circumstance, our affections may fall on Jeremy Corbyn – he is at least challenging neoliberalism in a divided Britain and argues for peace on the world stage. However, as Stalin once said of the pope, how many divisions has he got?

Conquering nation

Which brings us to Putin and the peculiar, almost unconscious and habitual liking for his interventions in the Arab world and outplaying of the Western powers. This apparent preference seems an odd fit for anti-war socialists since he has a consistent habit of dropping bombs on innocent and poor civilians who happen to be Muslims, which, were it done so consistently by any Western leader, would be seen as a form of genocide.

Russian warship Grisha class Corvette 617 "Mirazh" passes the Bosphorus on its way to Syria on 7 October 2016 in Istanbul (AFP)
Perhaps we should look to a great left-wing thinker for some answers, and see how much he accords with the views of the Putin fans:

“Russia is decidedly a conquering nation, and was so for a century, until the great movement of [1989] called into potent activity an antagonist of formidable nature. We mean the European revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man’s native thirst for freedom. Since that epoch there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe – Russia and Absolutism, [versus] the Revolution and Democracy. For the moment the Revolution seems to be suppressed, but it lives and is feared as deeply as ever. …. But let Russia get possession of [Syria], and her strength is increased nearly half, and she becomes superior to all the rest of Europe put together. Such an event would be an unspeakable calamity to the revolutionary cause. The maintenance of [Syrian] independence, or … the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation, is a matter of the highest moment. In this instance the interests of revolutionary democracy and of England go hand in hand. Neither can permit the tsar to make [Damascus] one of his capitals...”

These were the words of Karl Marx writing in the New York Tribune in April 1853. My only playfulness with the above text was to change the date 1789 to 1989 and to substitute the words Damascus and Syria for Constantinople and Turkey.

Of course, a great deal has changed since then and some will cry foul at such a deployment of Marx. But in my defence, Marx opposed despotism and the great power chauvinism of Tsarist Russia. Putin is a modern tsar with designs on the Near East and wants to push the West out. This is what Lenin called inter-imperialist rivalry. He has won thus far because the West has shown itself to be an unreliable, Janus-faced partner to regional powers, leading the likes of Turkey and now Egypt to cut deals with Russia. With Putin, you get what you pay for.

The two-faced West

The Clinton emails revealed by Wikileaks prove again, if proof be needed, that the US was fully aware that its Gulf allies funded IS and al-Qaeda, but said nothing because they did not want to rock the boat. Only when IS swept through Iraq did Obama move to halt the advance.

But in the region, it was already clear to many that America’s opposition to terrorism and support for its allies was tactical, and part of a larger strategic calculation. The bombing of Syrian army forces in Deir Ezzor in September, while they were engaged in a long-running battle against IS, was evidence again that the US was hedging its bets and not interested in a deal with Russia.

Initial US silence over the Turkish coup, while Putin offered solidarity, was another sign the West could not be trusted. Marx too had something to say about Russia’s success in drawing the likes of Turkey away from the West:  

…nay, even the government at Constantinople, despairing, time after time, to make its actual wants and real position understood by these Western ambassadors, who pride themselves upon their own utter incompetency to judge by their own eyes of Turkish matters, this very Turkish government has, in every instance, been obliged to throw itself upon the mercy of Russia, and to seek protection from that power which openly avows its firm intention to drive every Turk across the Bosphorus, and plant the cross of St Andrew upon the minarets of the Aya-Sofiyah.

Should Marxists and leftists in general side with secular-Orthodox Russia and Assad or Western-backed Gulf states and their paid-up militia? Although it is an imperfect choice, the argument goes, the Gulf states and Turkey need to be beaten, since progressive modernity is by definition not a reactionary religious movement that destroys secular states.

Neither Washington nor Moscow

Defeating Islamic State is one thing that, in theory, unites Russia and the West, the left and the non-fascist right. Beyond that, there is doubt. For leftists, would it not be better to revolt against the binary choice of empires, just as brave socialists did in Europe in 1914? When the revolution is foreclosed, as it is for now in the Middle East until the next wave of revolt, that is the only sane answer. We are not compelled to choose between two kinds of despotism.

To only oppose war crimes when they are committed by “our” war criminals is a kind of one-note outrage born of spending too long in the trenches of the class war

Instead, we could look to the revolutionary humanism of Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Marxist writer David Harvey and the writings of Russia’s finest war correspondent Vassily Grossman, which reject Manichean geopolitics in favour of human-centred democracy and socialism.

To only oppose war crimes when they are committed by “our” war criminals is a kind of one-note outrage born of spending too long in the trenches of the class war. It also suggests a blind spot for the thousands of victims of the bombs dropped by Assad and Putin.

Further, in geopolitical terms, it seems that few on the left have noticed that despite America’s pre-eminence, the multipolar world that so many fought for already exists. The West has lost its power to impose its will. In place of the capitalism of London and New York, we have the capitalism of Dubai and Beijing. It’s still a brutally unequal and rampantly destructive system, but it’s not the Western-dominated one we fought in the last century. Wake up comrades, you’ve won!

People's right to revolt

My meeting with the Vietnamese ambassador in 1973 planted the seed of admiration toward the [literally] little people whose bravery against the world’s leading military power was unmatched and ultimately victorious. When Russia went to war in Afghanistan, I felt something was wrong, since I grew up believing that the Soviet Union defended the people of the Third World in their fight for freedom from imperialism. Now they were doing what the Americans had done in Vietnam.

Whether it is Syria or Yemen, it is the duty of democrats and revolutionaries to put themselves in the shoes of the people under the bombs and to ask 'what would I do?'

Another idea embedded from growing up in the 1980s with the echoes of Vietnam and the wars fought by America against the tiny, poor nations of Central America, was that every people has the right to fight for dignity and independence on their own terms. We might not always agree with the form that fight takes, the alliances made by those fighting it, but it is a fight that every people has the inalienable right to wage against oppressors both domestic and foreign.

Like most secularists, I do not support sectarianism or chauvinism in any form. But neither the West nor secular regimes can forever deny basic dignity to people in the Middle East. In such conditions, whether it is Syria or Yemen, it is the duty of democrats and revolutionaries to try to put themselves in the shoes of the people under the bombs and bullets and to ask what would I do? Foreign fighters aside, many have little or no choice but to enlist for one side or another.  

Westerners could also ask the people caught in the vice of war what they would have us do, rather than fall back on ideological cliches that sees everything as a foreign plot - while denying agency to the ordinary people affected by the struggle. We might not like the answer, but we might just learn something.

-Joe Gill has lived and worked as a journalist in Oman, London, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Caracas Daily Journal and the Morning Star. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Vietnamese peasants cower in a ditch during a battle between Vietnamese and American forces (Bas Feijen/Wikicommons)

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