The following is the (rough) transcription of a speech I made introducing the ‘Defend Syria’ event recently held in London.
Hasn’t the anti-war movement done enough?
Why have this meeting? There have been a few other events opposing war in Syria, including a couple organised by the Stop the War Coalition, so is it really worth having this one? Is there anything left to say, other than to repeat: we don’t want the British military to bomb Syria? I personally think there are some important aspects of the Syria crisis that haven’t been properly covered and that we should look into if we’re serious about building a movement against war in Syria.
Don’t attack Syria?
For one thing, we shouldn’t be saying “please don’t attack Syria”; we should be saying “stop attacking Syria”. Because there is already a war taking place in Syria, one that Britain, France and the US are deeply involved in. Although it is painted in the media as a purely internal Syrian conflict, when you look under the surface there are a lot of external forces backing, promoting, advising and arming the opposition.
Crux of the conflict
The crux of this conflict, which hardly anyone in the west seems to have understood or is talking about, is a fairly typical modern neo-colonial war. We’ve seen a very similar pattern in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Yugoslavia in the 90s, in Grenada and Nicaragua in the 80s, in Chile in the 70s. The western imperialist powers stir up unrest, they destabilise, they demonise, they propagandise, they exploit divisions - for example religious and ethnic divisions - and manipulate situations in order to support their overall geopolitical game-plan; that is: wiping out all resistance to imperialism and to zionism. If we haven’t learnt to recognise this pattern yet, well, we’re not very good learners!
There’s nothing all that new happening in Syria, in the sense that it’s a conflict which is basically ongoing: Syria’s Arab nationalist and Arab socialist orientation has never been acceptable to the west and to Israel. The conflict has been steadily escalating over the last decade, especially since the government’s refusal to go along with western plans for Iraq in 2003; especially since Hezbollah’s historic 2006 victory over Israel in Lebanon (which would doubtful have been achievable without Syrian support); and especially since 2005, when the US started channeling significant funding towards opposition groups, as has been exposed by Wikileaks. And it’s now got to a level where all the western imperialist governments and their Gulf state puppets are openly demanding, supporting, funding regime change. Furthermore, they’re imposing suffocating sanctions - designed to make the government unpopular by making the people suffer - and they’re pushing this endless propaganda; the full mass media machine has been put to work to demonise Syria, creating a growing public sentiment that “something must be done” to get rid of the evil tyrant Bashar al-Assad.
So I think it’s very important to be clear: there is a neo-colonial war taking place. Imperialism and zionism stand on one side; the independent, resistant Syrian nation stands on the other. Yes, there are nuances and complexities within that; there are other contradictions (for example between the Syrian unemployed and the bureaucracy), but these are subsidiary to the principal contradiction.
If people call themselves anti-imperialist, they’ve got a responsibility to stand firmly and unambiguously on Syria’s side. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have differences with, or reservations about, the Syrian state; that’s fine (although I have to say, people’s critique of the Syrian state tends to be informed more by mainstream media disinformation than by serious historical/political analysis). But people cannot sit on the fence in a situation such as this.
Let’s be honest: the anti-war activity in relation to Syria so far in Britain (and in the west generally) has been pretty pathetic and certainly very ineffective, in the sense that it hasn’t impacted public opinion at all. And the problem is that people are trying to build an anti-war movement on the basis of an argument that says: yes, the Syrian state is dreadful in every way, and we support the uprising against it, we want regime change, but we don’t want the west to interfere. Nobody is going to put themselves on the line to prevent a war on that basis; nobody is going to be forming teams of human shields; nobody is going to send off international brigades to defend a state that they’ve been told is not worthy of defence.
And while people are squirming this way and that to protect their “ideological purity”, Syria is actually in the crosshairs; it is actually under attack. There is a very real threat that it will be turned into “another Iraq”. It’s awful to use that expression about an important and historic country like Iraq - one of the birthplaces of civilisation - but the fact is we can’t think of Iraq these days without thinking about over a million surplus deaths since the start of the 2003 war; without thinking about millions of refugees; without thinking of depleted uranium poisoning; without thinking about Fallujah, Najaf, Abu Ghraib; without thinking of deadly sectarian violence; without thinking of half a million children killed by sanctions between 1991 and 2003; without thinking of a proud nation - a leading Third World nation - being reduced to the status of a failed state.
This is what Syria is potentially facing. So what makes it so difficult to defend Syria? What’s so bad about the Syrian state that we can’t side with it?
One reason a lot of people cite is that it’s repressive. Well ok, yes, to some degree, it’s repressive - as are all states. This is the nature of the state. Every state in the world has a police force, an army, a secret police. Every state in the world has prisons - which means that every state in the world engages in what I would consider to be a pretty disgusting and inhumane act of repression. But such is the nature of the state.
Is Syria more repressive than most? Maybe. But why would that be the case? It’s not enough to say Syria is repressive and therefore bad and that’s the end of it. That’s a very shallow analysis. It’s not possible to properly understand a phenomenon without considering it fully in its historical context. Repression serves different functions in different contexts.
The United States, for example, has two and a quarter million people in prison, approximately half of whom are black. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 12 times higher than Syria’s. The purpose of this appalling repression is quite clear: to prevent the possibility of black, brown, indigenous and working class people from developing power and from challenging the interests of the racist, imperialist power structure.
If you look at the list of countries with the highest military expenditure as a percentage of GDP (that is, relative to their economy, how much do the spend on weaponry), you’ll see Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan at the top. What do these countries need all those weapons for?! They’re not at war. They’re not under threat from Britain, France and the United States. They’re on good terms with Israel. So what are the weapons for? They exist as a deterrent force to their populations, whose needs are totally at odds with those of their ruling families. The masses of those countries hate their governments for their religious sectarianism, for their allegiance to the west, for their selling out of Palestine. Hence the need for repression.
But Syria is a different case: it is an anti-west state; it is a defender of Palestinian rights; it has made massive sacrifices in order to not sell out the Palestinian and Arab national cause; and it is a secular state, deeply hostile to religious sectarianism. So what makes the Syrian state repressive? Is it perhaps some sort of inherited personality characteristic in the Assad family that drives its members to behave in an authoritarian manner? (Probably there are genetic scientists in the west piecing together just such a theory!). Or is it simply the fact that it has never known peace; the fact that other countries - mainly Israel, but also France, the US, Britain, Jordan, Saudi, Iraq at various times, Egypt at various times, Turkey at various times - have been working to destabilise it, to stir up sectarian conflict; that is, to do anything to remove it from its position as the leading resistant Arab state.
Sacrifices for stability and resistance
It’s clear that, in the face of this non-stop threat, Syria has made compromises of all sorts - especially in relation to democratic forms and socialist economics - in order to achieve some level of stability and to maintain its resistant stance. Who am I to say that is a bad choice? Who am I to tell anybody that increasing the breadth of popular democratic organisations is more important than basic political and economic stability? Ask any Somali which one of those things their country needs more at this point in time. I bet I know the answer.
That’s not to say that changes aren’t needed in Syria - Syrian people do want change, as does the Syrian President. But reform is a complex process, made much more difficult by the type of threat that Syria is facing.
If we’re serious about building an anti-war movement, let’s not get too caught up in wanting to make judgements against the Syrian state for this or that mistake or defect. When Syria is under attack, a better instinct is help people understand the positive aspects of its character, the reasons it’s under attack from the global enemy, rather than going into the ritual denunciation that most anti-war activists seem to be into. Furthermore, we should be doing a lot more to promote Syrian voices, to give voice to those millions of Syrians who defend their country and who perfectly well understand the conspiracy that’s taking place. So far their voice has been totally ignored, not only by the mainstream media, but also by most of the ‘alternative’ and left-wing press.