By Alex Callinicos
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2483

Don’t get tangled up in imperial rivalries

This article is over 8 years, 6 months old
Socialists and anti-imperialists have to build the broadest and biggest anti-war movement possible - but this task faces new complications.
Issue 2483
Protester outside parliament says Dont bomb Syria - a demand we can unite around
A demand we can unite around (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The drums of war are beating ever louder in the Middle East. Following hot on the House of Commons vote to bomb Syria, Germany’s parliament endorsed sending troops to the region, albeit in non-combat roles. The US is deploying more special forces troops to operate in Iraq and Syria.

Socialists and anti-imperialists therefore have to build the broadest and biggest anti-war movement possible. But this task faces new complications.

In 2003 the US and Britain started a war by invading Iraq. This time there is a war already going on in Syria. And it isn’t anything like the Spanish Civil War that shadow minister Hilary Benn dishonestly compared it to last week.

That was a relatively straightforward struggle between fascists and reactionaries on one side and progressive liberal and socialist forces on the other.

True, the Stalinists and social democrats in the latter camp united to crush the revolutionaries. But even that was a relatively transparent ideological struggle.

The Syrian war is a complex, many-sided conflict, pitting against each other domestic forces that are increasingly defined in confessional and sectarian terms. These are backed by outside regional and global powers for their own interests. The secular democratic impulse of the original 2011 risings survives only weakly.

Moreover, various currents in the Western left have their sympathies with different sides in the war.

George Galloway, for example, has never made a secret of his support for Bashar al-Assad, whose Ba’athist regime he sees as a progressive, secular force.

This didn’t matter in 2003, since the Syrian regime wasn’t a player in that war. Now it can matter in as much as it leads to arguments that may divide the anti-war movement.

For example, many on the left have made a lot of Russia’s claim that it has proof that Turkey has been importing oil from oilfields controlled by Isis in eastern Syria.

They say that this proves that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of Isis’s main sponsors.


This argument is misleading on two counts. First, it’s not news that this oil is being exported across the Syria-Turkey border. Plenty of other actors trade with Isis.

The Financial Times newspaper has conducted a series of investigations showing that the Assad regime buys oil from Isis, sells arms to it, and supplies experts to run power stations in Isis-controlled territory.

Secondly, it’s certainly true that Erdogan’s government has been funding and backing different Sunni jihadi groups in Syria and casting a blind eye to Isis activities.

But this is because its prime concern is to prevent the Kurdish nationalist PKK from consolidating its own territorial enclave in Syria and using it to reinforce the liberation struggle in Turkey. Isis’s value to Erdogan is as a counterweight to the PKK.

This kind of calculation is typical of the motives of all the different external actors in the Syrian war. Those who want to make Erdogan the root of all evil tend to be sympathetic to the Russian intervention in Syria.

But president Vladimir Putin started bombing in Syria not to defeat Isis but to prop up Assad, whose murderous regime has long been Moscow’s closest ally in the region.

The moral of this is that the anti-war movement should stay out of all the different powers’ geopolitical schemes and the spurious arguments used to justify them.

Our task is to mobilise against the US-led military campaign in the Middle East and our own government’s participation. This broad stand can gain the support of Syrians opposed to the bombings.

This doesn’t mean that people who back Russia, or even Assad, have no place in the anti-war movement. Others on the British left have used their presence at anti-war rallies as a reason for not supporting the Stop the War Coalition.

This is a bad mistake. We should accept that we have different takes on the Syrian struggle, but still work together.

Socialist Worker stands strongly with the Syrian Revolution and its original promise. But we won’t forget that the main enemy is at home, and we’ll unite with all who want to mobilise against it.

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