Does opposing western intervention in Syria make the anti-war movement “Assad apologists”?

From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Libya to Syria, the accusation is that by opposing western intervention the anti-war movement is giving tacit support to dictators or despots: but is it? By Lindsey German (STWC)


The miserable sight of Syrian refugees in snowbound camps, desperate for food and warmth, shows the extent of the humanitarian crisis affecting millions in Syria and its near neighbours.

There is no end to this war in sight. The western plans for intervention and to overthrow the Assad government have suffered a series of defeats, yet hopes for any kind of political solution look bleak.

The United Nations’ report on chemical weapons, finally issued last week, concludes that sarin was probably used in five locations in Syria this year. The UN does not apportion blame for these attacks, but says that some of them were carried out against government soldiers, the implication being that the Syrian opposition, as well as the government, potentially had access to such weapons.

This contradicts the line spun in August by the United States, Britain and France, following the attack on Ghouta. Barack Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry insisted that these chemical weapons attacks could only have been carried out by the Assad government, and not by any opposition forces.

Even then, this view was challenged — by for example the Independent journalist Robert Fisk, who suggested that the Syrian opposition may have got the weapons from Libya, due the collapse of any central authority following the west’s bombing campaign that toppled the Gadaffi regime.

Last week, a report by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books presented evidence that, while the US had no credible intelligence that the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta was carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s troops, it did know that jihadi groups there, especially the al-Nusra Front, almost certainly had sarin and could use it.

And yet the US, backed by Britain and France, insisted that Assad was responsible. The intent was clearly to help precipitate regime change by launching a bombing war against Syria. And the plan was to begin the attack on Syria without delay before these governments were subjected to more stringent questioning as to the credibility of the “intelligence” being used to justify the attacks.

This is why UK prime minister David Cameron insisted on recalling parliament a few days after the August bank holiday, making MPs return early to parliament for an emergency debate, even though they were due to be back in parliament anyway just three days later. Why did Cameron do this? Because the airstrikes on Syria were planned to be implemented immediately after the vote in parliament.

The Assad regime, Cameron told parliament, had ‘crossed a red line’: the west had to “do something”. Military intervention,he said, was the humanitarian response to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately for Cameron, there were too many MPs in parliament who remembered the same arguments being made by Tony Blair that led to the disastrous war on Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and from which the country has still not recovered. Other MPs were under huge pressure from their constituents making it clear that they opposed any more war by the UK government.

The victory for anti-war opinion, represented by the almost unprecedented vote against war in the British parliament on 30 August 2013, was important enough in itself, but it had repercussions well beyond Britain.

It meant that Barack Obama and President Hollande in France had to announce that they too would try to win votes in their legislatures. This was abandoned by both governments once the level of popular opposition to an airstrike became clear. The proposed bombing campaign was pushed into the indefinite future and instead, the prospect of talks and of a new peace conference in Geneva opened up.

There was bitter disappointment among the neocons in both the US, where the Washington hawks accused those who opposed the intervention of abandoning the Syrian people, and in the UK, where government minister Michael Gove raged against fellow Tory MPs who had voted to oppose airstrikes.

But since then, the prospects have become even worse for those backing overt western intervention to supercede the covert intervention that has been going on for the past three years. Last week, the headquarters and arms depot of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the Turkish border was overun by jihadi groups. It appears that among the military hardware seized from the FSA by the jihadis was anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, some of which originated from the United States. These groups, including some allied to al-Qaeda, are now fighting both the FSA and the Assad government, their aim being to impose an Islamic state in Syria.

Unsurprisingly, the US and British governments have been forced to stop non-lethal aid to its allies among the opposition in Syria. Money will no longer go to the FSA. Hard to believe that only four months ago, these same governments were demanding public support for a war which would essentially have provided a western airforce to support the FSA.

It was the FSA, along with the Syrian National Council, who were held up as the legitimate representatives of the anti-government opposition, officially recognised by many countries as the ‘government in exile’, and groomed by the western powers to take control in the event of Bashar al-Assad falling from power.

Now, with the opposition to Assad’s regime so disunited and in disarray, Saudi Arabia is trying to pull together different sections of the opposition into its own ‘army’ to fight against Assad and by proxy against Iran, its main enemy in the region.

These latest developments highlight the total impasse in which western strategy now finds itself. There is a simple truth that our political leaders refuse to learn from the experience of the past decade and more of endless war: the intervention policies of western governments has only led to the spread of war, mass slaughter of civilians, regional instability, lethal sectarianism and out-of-control civil wars.

It is hard to see how anything other than a political solution is going to end the suffering and misery of the Syrian people any time soon. But the prospects for viable peace talks seem more remote than they did even a few weeks ago.

The anti-war movement has argued consistently against western intervention, whether it is dressed up as humanitarian, the spreading of “freedom and democracy” or to support the human rights of women.

This has been unpopular in some quarters, including those sections of Syrian opinion which seek outside help in its fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. We believe that opinion is profoundly mistaken. Every covert and overt intervention by the west distorts society and political life in those countries, and only further militarises the conflict with ever higher cost for the civilian population.

But opposing intervention does not mean giving tacit support to dictators or despots, or — as some claim in the context of Syria — make us “Assad apologists”. The very same accusation was levelled against the anti-war movement when it opposed western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We were, the argument went, closet supporters of the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gadaffi. That was never true: our position never implied support for any individual or government: our consistent objective was always — and still is — to oppose the war policies of our own government and its allies.

Twelve years on, it is more clear than ever we were right to oppose those war policies. The vote in the British parliament on 30 August was a reflection that our political leaders can — by the force of majority public opinion, which opposes any more western intervention in other people’s countries — be made to end this era of perpetual war.

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