In Syria, the Stop the War Coalition is not against Western intervention

In Syria, the Stop the War Coalition is not against Western intervention
Comment: As Raqqa gets destroyed, the Stop the War Coalition is nowhere to be heard, leaving Syria solidarity protesters to demonstrate in front of US embassies alone, writes Omar Sabbour.
12 min read
30 Oct, 2017
The Stop The War Campaign only protests when Assad is targeted, writes Omar Sabbour [Getty]

For years, the Stop the War Coalition's leadership has justified either the group's silence, or routinely promoted Assad apologisms as evidence the Syrian regime is supposedly subject to a "US plot" to overthrow it.

Most recently, much outrage was raised at the famous missile strike on a Syrian regime airfield following the chemical attack on the Syrian village of Khan Shaykhoun in April.

Stop the War mobilised an "emergency protest" against "Donald Trump's decision to launch attacks against Syrian targets" and any UK participation in it - even though this UK intervention had been taking place for three years already, with the UK having dropped eleven times more bombs in the first 12 months of its intervention than during the busiest year of the occupations in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

It was also done despite the fact that UK officials voiced support for the airstrike while specifically praising its limited nature, and despite statements by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon declaring that the US strike was "not a declaration of war against the Assad regime" and laying out explicitly that the UK would not "take military action against Syria" - with 'Syria' here of course being equatable with the Assad regime, as the UK has never withdrawn legal recognition from the regime nor conferred it onto the Syrian Interim Government.

Similarly, US officials also repeated that the action was not a "declaration of war" against the regime, and that there was "no change" in US policy established under Trump - of relinquishing the already half-hearted so-called "demand" for Assad to "step down" - besides "deterring" further chemical attacks.

Since then, the US has been providing air cover to Iranian-backed foreign militias on Syrian territory, as has been the case for years in Iraq. In other words, the US has been supporting foreign occupation forces on Syrian territory.

A week before the much-heralded strike on a regime airfield - often described in both mainstream and alternative coverage as "Trump's strike on Syria", again, with "Syria" interchangeable with "the Syrian regime" and not with Syrian territory; Trump had of course already launched more than 1,000 airstrikes by that point in Syria alone, killing 1,000 civilians in the month of March - the US had committed massacres in the province of Aleppo, in which up to 50 worshippers were killed in an airstrike on a mosque in a rebel-held (not IS-held) town in Aleppo, and in Raqqa, where at least 33 civilians were killed in an airstrike on a school housing refugees.

The Stop the War Coalition would not call for any protests against such repeated massacres. They barely generated any media coverage, certainly relative to the outrage over the strike on the Assad regime airfield - a strike that the US indirectly warned the regime of in advance via Russia and which did not even put the largely evacuated airfield out of service, with airstrikes resuming the next day.

While Syria solidarity groups in Ireland and the UK repeatedly protested the US blitzkriegs at the US embassy, the Stop the War Coalition would not join such protests.


As we will see from the comparative coverage in STW's outlets, it is not an exaggeration to state that the regime's damaged tarmac provoked more protest than the civilians killed in US-led Coalition strikes in non-regime-held territories.

This disparity was strongly noted at the time by observers and Syrian solidarity activists.

In the six months following the "airfield strike", and with it becoming clear that the risk of "regime-change" had subsided - vindicating not the Stop the War Coalition, who spent the past three years claiming the US intervention was "backdoor regime change", but those who viewed the US intervention in Syria as a form of regime-preservation, the Stop the War Coalition again went into relative hibernation on the subject of Syria.

This is despite the fact that the past few months have witnessed the most intense US-led bombardment of the war.

There has not been a single emergency demonstration called against the intensive campaign of bombardment in Raqqa, or, before that, Mosul, or the US-led blitzkriegs of the past few months across Syria and Iraq more generally.

Similarly, not a single statement has been published specific to the Raqqa bombing campaign or the increasingly murderous Coalition campaign more generally, in contrast with three statements devoted specifically to the aftermath of the Trump airfield strike and warning against further attacks on Assad.

Between December 2015 (during the UK parliamentary vote on Syrian airstrikes) and April 2017 (the strike on the regime airfield) Stop the War did not organise a single protest over Syria, and similarly in the period since the airfield strike there has not been a single protest, despite the killing of up to 2,000 Syrian civilians according to the monitoring group, Airwars. Almost 800 Syrian civilians were killed in August 2017, including such massacres as 100 civilians being killed by the Coalition in Raqqa in 48 hours.

Instead, a protest was organised against "the threat of nuclear war" with North Korea.

An examination of Stop the War's media output during the period since the airfield strike (April 2017) demonstrates this lopsided reality. Stop the War's website content on Syria during this period features five calls for national and local demonstrations against Trump's airfield strike, while there have been two statements on the Trump airstrike - one by STW and one by Jeremy Corbyn - a further statement obfuscating the Assad regime's responsibility for the Sarin attack (which was later confirmed by the UN, as often demanded by STW, without this confirmation being covered by STW).

There was another citing and condemning media reports of Theresa May allegedly seeking authorisation for action against the Assad regime - an event which never took place, with British diplomats reportedly seeking to obtain immunity for Assad from prosecution - and, most recently, a statement opposing Trump's potential departure from the Iran deal.

Meanwhile, the STW website has featured four articles condemning the strike on the regime airfield, three articles warning of UK attacks on the regime, five articles complaining of how the US is actually targeting the "real prize" of Iran in Syria - the same Iran whose proxies to which the US has been providing military support in Iraq for the past few years, including Iraqi military brigades which have used their Western support to fight for Assad in Syria - one article on the "illegality" of the UK flying drones in Syria without permission from the Assad regime (a spurious allegation as this permission has been knowingly implicit for years), two articles linking the London Bridge attacks to the FSA, two more referencing Qatari and Saudi backing of "extremist rebels", and finally two pieces condemning an incident in the border region of Al-Tanf of the US bombing a rogue foreign militia (which disobeyed both Russian and US orders to withdraw from the area).

This last event was declared by Chris Nineham, Stop the War Coalition's national officer, as an "act of war against Syria" and "bombing a foreign country". In other words, the airstrike against a foreign militia which was invading Syrian territory - and which the local tribes of Deir az-Zour in the area declared was a "force of occupation" that they were fighting - was declared by Nineham as "a foreign country" (by virtue of its alliance with the Syrian regime).

Ironically, the real story is that the US has actually supported such foreign militias on Syrian territory (again without coverage by Stop the War Coalition, as this contradicts the long-propagated pro-Iran narrative that the US is "actually" attempting to undermine it in Syria), including in Palmyra and Deir az-Zour.

During the very same episode at Al-Tanf, the US reportedly authorised a regime airstrike against a local rebel group within a designated "Safe Zone" area, after the group independently attacked the rogue pro-Assad militia in question - the US also threatened direct airstrikes against a local rebel group which was expelled from the Pentagon's anti-IS programme, again after it attacked the foreign militias in the area.

In total, there have been twenty-five pieces citing either the Trump strike on the regime airfield, warning of or disparaging "regime-change" (the call of "The People demand the downfall of the regime" made in 2011 is, of course, irrelevant) and/or "exposing" a secret Western attempt to undermine Iran - as well as four pieces linking the rebels with "Islamic extremism" - against twelve pieces citing the rising civilian toll of the actual (not hypothetical) intensified Coalition bombardments in Syria in the past six months.

Meanwhile, a search of the group's Facebook feed during this period will find no mention of Syria outside of the Trump airfield strike, while a Twitter search produces three references of civilian casualties from the US-led Coalition campaign against twelve references to the Trump strike and/or warning of "regime-change" against Assad.

Conversely to this lopsided coverage, there have been approximately 6,000 US-led Coalition airstrikes on "Syria" during the period concerned, according to the monitoring group Airwars, with all of these except five (this itself a wartime high - encompassing the much-publicised strike on the regime airfield, the downing of a regime jet in defence of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and three strikes against the rogue militia at al-Tanf) taking place outside of regime-held territory.

The relationship of the Stop the War Coalition and Syria solidarity activists has long been strained, with the latter long accusing the former of serving as "War on Terror-and Assad-apologists", while the former accuse the latter of "supporting Western intervention" and being indistinguishable from supporters of a "new Iraq".

This conflict has sometimes been reported in the media, as when MP Diane Abbot hosted a meeting in 2015 in which Syrian and Arab activists were prevented from speaking, or when Jeremy Corbyn was heckled during Stop the War's annual conference last December.

Yet at that very same conference, the Stop the War Coalition actually fielded three proponents of Western intervention on their platforms:

- Dr Alan Shemo, a representative of the Western-backed Kurdish PYD (the political arm of the YPG) - an organisation which has gifted the US as many as seven airbases on Syrian territory, fought alongside US Special Forces, has repeatedly flown the American flag in territories captured from IS, and of course has been calling in US airstrikes since 2014 (including threatening Arab villagers with them if they did not evacuate). The YPG has repeatedly denied reports of Coalition massacres as exaggerated or "IS apologism", and invited the US to stay in Syria "for decades". Indeed, Stop the War's Annual General Meeting praised Rojava as "genuine examples of radical democracy and efforts of establishing an egalitarian, ecological and democratic society" - seemingly unaware of this imperialist backing.

- Michelle Allison, a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), a group which supports anti-IS Western airstrikes. Allison has repeatedly called for Western arming of the YPG, while asking for Western governments to block regional support to the rebels. Allison also repeated the racialist (always polemical, never empirical) trope that there were no "moderate" rebels.

- Diane Abbot MP, who called Western airstrikes supporting the post-occupation sectarian Iraqi government "legal" and "if part of a broader strategy, of course right".

Nor was this the first time that Stop the War have given a platform to Western interventionists:

- The Conservative MP Crispin Blunt was invited to speak on a Stop the War panel in the House of Commons in November 2015. Blunt's voting record included voting for the Iraq War in 2003 (though he later changed his mind) and voting to continue to support the Afghanistan war in 2010. His initial disagreement with the government motion (the basis of his invitation to the StWC panel) for intervening in Syria had to do with logistics, not principle: he argued that the scope of the proposed airstrikes was not wide enough, for excluding Jabhat al-Nusra and other Syrian Islamist rebel groups that could be later designated as "terrorist", and declared a distrust of David Cameron's claim that the UK would be supporting 70,000 rebels against IS - a hypothetical commitment to support which, of course, never materialised - believing that any intervention should seek the cooperation of the Syrian (regime) Army. Blunt would argue for Western intervention against IS from this very 'Stop the War' platform.

This would take place at the same meeting where Stop the War prevented Syrian and Arab activists from speaking (with the exception of one who was eventually cut off - none of her compatriots were then permitted) - including calling parliamentary police to "talk to" one.

A month after the Stop the War meeting, Blunt would change his mind and vote for airstrikes against IS in Syria. In other words, Stop the War offered a platform to an MP with a "pro-war" record who would - as they would put it - "vote to bomb" the country of the silenced activists a month later. This is a scandal which is still covered up by the Stop the War Coalition.

- George Galloway, who supported current Western airstrikes in Iraq and argued that he would support them too in Syria if they came with the main purpose of backing the Assad regime's ground forces (UK and US airforces had in fact already provided limited low-key aerial support for the Assad regime, including ground forces).

Galloway was confronted on his advocating of "Western imperialism" to intervene in support of Assad during a film premiere in Brighton, and admitted the charge, stating that "he wanted to see every member of ISIS and al-Qaeda on the ground killed" and that IS was the "biggest threat since the Second World War".

Wijdan Derki, a PYD/YPG supporter who again used a StWC platform in Birmingham to argue for Western airstrikes against IS.

- Erdelan Baran, again from the KNK. One of the plethora who used the Stop the War platform provided to chastise the Syrian Arab revolutionary forces as "extremists" indistinguishable from IS.

Stop the War's leadership has spent years refusing to platform or debate Syrian solidarity activists - claiming that they "refuse to give a platform to supporters of Western intervention" (of course, blanket-labelling Syrian revolutionary supporters as all supportive of a No-Fly Zone, which is not the case - the Syria Solidarity Campaign for example opposes all foreign intervention in the conflict). Yet they have offered to publicly debate the likes of Hilary Benn and Boris Johnson, who are obvious "supporters of Western intervention".

Perhaps therefore, STW's leadership and the likes of German, Nineham and co would be brave enough to accept a debate with their Arab Spring critics.

Because it appears that in Syria, Stop the War have come to oppose the Syrian revolution, not Western intervention.

Omar Sabbour is an independent Egyptian writer and activist.

A longer version of this piece can be found on the author's personal blog, The Eternal Spring.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.