Syria and the Antiwar Tradition

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E- Bulletin No 1324, by David Bush, editor at, Nov 3, 2016.

There is major disorientation on the left in many Western countries when it comes to Syria and about how antiwar activists should respond to events on the ground in Syria and Iraq. The highly complex nature of the Syrian war involving a multitude of foreign states and non-state actors would, in the best of times, present the left with a real challenge to find political clarity. The fact that this is occurring precisely when the antiwar movement in countries like Canada and the United States are relatively weak only adds to the confusion.

(Picture: Bombing doesn’t kill an ideology. It feeds it).

The way in which the debate about the Syrian war has been framed and conducted by large parts of the left has been unhelpful to say the least. Some have taken a pro-Assad/pro-Russia anti-imperialist line. This position views the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad as reactionary and driven by U.S. imperialism.

Others frame the debate about the need to support the revolution against ISIS and the Assad regime (or lament the lack of support for the rebels from U.S. imperialism as Gilbert Achcar does). Sometimes this takes on tangible support for the YPG (an armed leftist/feminist Kurdish independence force) or supporting this or that force within the array of groups that make up the anti-Assad/anti-ISIS opposition. There are of course a variety of positions within this frame: some call for active intervention by the West to stop massacres by Assad, others call for arming the rebels or more humanitarian aide, while others equally condemn all sides.

The Conflict Spreads: … //

… The Left’s Antiwar Roots: … //
…The Enemy is at Home: … //
…False Historical Precedence: … //
…What About Russia? … //

…Uniting Around “No War”:

In Canada, the focus should be on ensuring the Liberals do not reengage with airstrikes in Syria. It also means demanding the troops be withdrawn from the Middle East and from the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, while also advocating for more refugees to be taken in and stopping Canada’s escalating arms trade. In the USA, this means focusing on stopping American involvement (ending the direct bombing in all the countries, pulling out troops, closing bases and stopping the funding of armed groups). In Russia and Turkey this means supporting those on the ground calling for the end of military engagement in the region.

To be able to build up this perspective does not require political uniformity of those advocating a non-interventionist position. A simple application of a united front principle – all those who advocate for ending the involvement of your own ruling classes are welcome. Obviously major disagreements beyond that narrow political demand exist, but those should be fought separately.

This was precisely how the antiwar movement was built around the Vietnam and Iraq wars. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the rightwing and liberal media tried to paint the anti-war movement as a group of people uncaring or wilfully unaware of Saddam’s brutal crimes. People in the movement were routinely called Baathist apologists. Despite these routine slanders a perspective that focused on uniting around opposing the war, not on any other questions, allowed for mass participation in the movement. The terms of the movement were simple: do you oppose the war? If yes, then let’s join forces on that question and debate other political perspectives along the way (this was also the same formula that anti-war movement adopted during the Vietnam war). What has been lost in the debate around the war in Syria is precisely this perspective.

Imperial involvement always has some sort of humanitarian justification whether that be protecting democracy and the free world in Vietnam or stopping a bloodthirsty tyrant with WMD’s in Iraq. Those on the left who advocate for selective intervention for “humanitarian” reasons fail to realize they don’t direct state policy or war aims – those who put the troops in the field and conduct war have very different reasons for doing so. The drive to war has its own logic and aims, which are very much coloured by the needs of capitalism and the interests of the economic and political elites. The left’s call for intervention only provides political cover for the ruling class.

The antiwar movement has drifted far away from the ABC’s of rejecting militarism and imperialism. However confusing and complex the situation is in Iraq and Syria the lessons and traditions of the antiwar movement still provide a path to political clarity and a useful strategic orientation for the left.

(full text).


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