ONE of the most important factors in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign was his opposition to the war in Iraq, and to any future wars in the Middle East. The lies and spin that took us to war in Iraq under Tony Blair still weigh heavily on the minds of millions. Ed Miliband’s refusal to give the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition a mandate to bomb Syria in August 2013 resonated with this mood.
This has naturally raised hopes among activists enthused by Jeremy’s campaign that Labour, under his leadership, will oppose bombing in Syria and NATO’s new Cold War.
We welcome this mood and demand Labour MPs stand behind Jeremy in opposing any extension of the bombing of Syria and Iraq and indeed call for an end to it. Party members should meet any rebellion by pro-war Labour MPs with calls for their deselection. Anyone in the Shadow Cabinet breaking ranks on this question should be removed.
There are, however, many in the anti-war movement who, while rightly opposing Cameron’s policy, have turned a blind eye to Russia’s intervention in Syria – or, worse, have welcomed it as a restraint on the USA’s global ambitions or as a constructive exercise in “peacekeeping”.
This is often aligned with a view that whitewashes the totalitarian Assad dictatorship or that depicts the Syrian rebels as playthings of the West, little different to the reactionary ISIS. For example, Robert Griffiths of the Communist Party of Britain – whose Morning Star newspaper supported Jeremy’s leadership bid — has said, “Russian military forces are now attacking all the anti-Assad terrorists, including ISIS, at the invitation of the Damascus government, which has every right to issue such an invitation as the internationally recognised political authority in Syria.”
Labour’s new Strategy and Communications chief Seumas Milne has expressed similar views in the past, going so far as to question Assad’s responsibility for his regime’s gassing of around 1,700 of its own citizens in 2013.
This outlook could not be more wrongheaded. Vladimir Putin’s war aims in the region are no less destructive or predatory than David Cameron’s or Barack Obama’s. Under the guise of fighting “ISIS terrorists”, Russia has in fact launched a full-scale offensive between Idlib and Syria’s largest city Aleppo, a stronghold of the Syrian rebels under attack from both ISIS and Assad.
Putin’s intentions are first of all to prop up Assad’s regime, which earlier this year had been close to collapse, and which has become ever more dependent on support from Russia, Iran, Lebanon's Hizbollah movement and Shi’ite sectarian militias from Iraq and Yemen. By crushing the rebels and leaving only ISIS and Assad standing, Russia hopes to convince the Western powers that Assad is the least worst option, and so set the agenda for a future settlement negotiated between the great powers over the heads of the Syrian people.
Israel, having already decided that Assad is the lesser evil, has made a deal with Russia, sharing intelligence with it on the Syrian armed opposition. Benjamin Netanyahu is also using the war as cover to intensify Israel’s harassment of the Palestinians.
The West, for their part, are planning further attacks on the ISIS-held region between Syria and Iraq, using as a pretext the need to end the refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands fleeing for Europe. Having for months insisted that Fortress Europe could not take them in, they have cynically used peoples’ compassion for the refugees to wreak further destruction on their homeland.
Meanwhile, the European Union, with Hungary’s racist government in the lead, is closing borders and erecting fences to keep out asylum seekers. Turkey, home to 2 million Syrian refugees, has agreed to restrict their movement further, in return for Western silence over its repression of the Kurds and the Turkish left.
Don’t expect to hear Western leaders denounce the Turkish state’s attacks on the leftist pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in advance of November’s elections, or for that matter its attacks on peaceful demonstrators following the mysterious bomb massacres at Suruç and Ankara, despite the central role played by the Rojava Kurds’ in repelling ISIS.
Many of the more secular parts of the Syrian rebel forces, displaying fatal illusions in the democratic credentials of the USA and the EU, have called on these powers to intervene more decisively, against both ISIS and Assad. However, both Russia and the West want to preserve Syria’s totalitarian state, with or without Assad, seeing it as a force for stability that could prevent the kind of chaos that followed the invasion of Iraq.
But it is exactly this apparatus of torture and mass murder that has been most responsible for the Syria’s human tragedy. Almost half of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced, about 7.6 million of them inside the country, and between 220,000 and 310,000 killed as a result of Assad’s war to crush the popular democratic uprising that began in March 2011, an uprising that was forced to take up arms in self-defence.
The shooting down of unarmed mass protests led to first a trickle, then a flood of defections of soldiers and officers, with local defence forces and democratic committees emerging in liberated areas. While Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, themselves no friends of the Arab Spring, intervened to promote their own favoured factions, that did not change the legitimate and popular character of the uprising.
It did, however, have an effect on its ideological landscape, with Islamist and Salafist forces predominating in the north-west, and mainly secular forces led by the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the south and along the Lebanese border.
The media-savvy head-choppers of ISIS, a product partly of Assad’s brutality, partly of the West’s destruction of Iraq, partly of the Saudi and Qatari bourgeoisies, come nowhere close to the body count that Assad’s forces have notched up, and probably never will — or for that matter those of Britain and the USA in Iraq, or Russia in Chechnya.
Indeed, ISIS has been able to grow and entrench itself in the region between the “failed states” of Syria and Iraq mainly because it has not been the principal target of any of the regional powers. The Turkish state and Assad in particular have effectively pursued a policy of “benign neglect”, so long as ISIS was mainly fighting their own respective number one enemies: the Kurdish national movement (in Turkey and in Rojava) or the FSA and its allies.
Labour should oppose all the military interventions in the region, the USA’s, UK’s and Russia’s, and demand the withdrawal of all their forces. We should similarly condemn the interference of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar.
We should, however, show solidarity with those forces that are still fighting to overthrow Assad in order replace it with a democratic regime that protects the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities. Only through this struggle can the working class obtain the freedom to form parties and trade unions to fight for a socialist Syria and a socialist Middle East.
This in turn means highlighting and supporting the resistance to all armies of intervention and occupation: the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, the Palestinians and the resistance to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's dictatorship in Egypt.
And finally, in Europe, where as many as a million refugees may arrive before the end of the year, we should say openly and unequivocally: open the borders to all those seeking asylum, provide them with homes and jobs and a warm welcome into the labour movements across the continent.