Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
A man stands in ruins in Aleppo
Plans for an international peace conference on Syria are looking very shaky. Even as the US and Russia continue collaborating on plans for such a meeting, arms shipments on all sides continue to threaten even greater escalation. Arms flows to Syrian rebel forces from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey and Jordan continue, Britain and France forced the European Union to end its prohibition on sending arms to the opposition, the United States cheered the EU decision, Russia announced it is sending Damascus advanced anti-aircraft missiles, and Israel made clear it would bomb those missiles if they arrive in Syria. And the Obama administration has reportedly requested the Pentagon to prepare plans for imposing a ‘no-fly’ zone in Syria in support of rebel fighters and even for direct multilateral military engagement inside Syria.
Syria – and the Middle East – are in serious trouble. Pressures on the Obama administration to engage even more directly in Syria, establishing a ‘no-fly’ zone, creating ‘safe corridors’ for the rebel forces, sending heavy weapons to the US-identified ‘good guys’ among the rebels, training even more than the 200 CIA agents in Jordan are training now, even direct air strikes on Syrian targets… all are on the wish list of the We-Want-To-Attack-Syria-And-We-Want-You-To-Do-It-Now caucus.
Most, though not all, of the calls for intervention come from the same people who led the calls for invading Iraq – neo-cons and other hard-line militarists, pundits and Congressmembers, mainly Republicans but plenty of Democrats too, including the ‘humanitarian hawks’, those who never saw a human rights crisis that didn’t require US military involvement to solve. The long-standing Republican supporter of US military action in Syria, Senator John McCain, made a highly-publicised visit to rebel-held territory inside Syria, accompanied by top leaders of the fractious rebel alliance. His trip appears timed directly to scuttle any potential for Washington’s and Moscow’s efforts to establish the new peace conference for Syria.
The drumbeat is spreading, and it’s not only from Republicans. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller, reprising his 2003 ‘reluctant’ support for the Iraq war, once again supports US armed intervention in Syria. What does he think will be better in this war? Well this time, unlike Iraq ten years ago he claims, Syria represents a ‘genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region.’
Guess Keller hasn’t looked very carefully at Iraq today. His point about what happens if Syria collapses is true (despite his leaving out the far more dire impact on the Syrian people), but he ignores the crucial point that his description of a future failed Syria if we don’t intervene, matches precisely what exists today in Iraq – as a direct result of US intervention. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the exploding Sunni-Shi’a violence across Iraq and over the borders into Syria among other places – today’s post-intervention Iraq is precisely what Keller warns of if the US doesn’t join the Syrian civil war. He didn’t look at Lebanon, where the already-shaky confessional system French colonialists imposed in the 1930s is under renewed strain from the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into the country, as well as the political-military pressure of the Syrian civil war itself. He didn’t look at Jordan, where more than 500,000 Syrian refugees have stretched the country’s social fabric to a near-breaking point.
What neither side of the Washington debate have considered is that the escalating crisis in the Middle East is taking place in the context of the significant decline of US power and influence. With US economic and diplomatic power reduced, military force remains the one arena in which the US is the indisputable champ. But even the $800 billion annual US military budget no longer determines history by itself. The US-Nato campaign in Libya was partly, though not entirely, an attempt to remilitarise problem-solving in the region and thus re-legitimise US centrality. But it failed.
What the civil war in Syria and the Arab Spring have exposed is that the massive political and social transformation and real regime change underway in the region is led by people themselves – largely without military force and certainly with no role for the United States. US military involvement serves only to escalate the destruction, while distracting from other failures. The people on the ground engaged in those political struggles don’t want US military intervention; the only ones who benefit are the arms manufacturers whose CEOs and shareholders continue to reap billions of blood dollars in profit.
War hurts civilians, but US wars generally hurt and kill civilians far from the US – so direct consequences remain far from US public consciousness. The problem for US policymakers is that an arms embargo also hurts their key campaign contributors: the arms dealers. The US remains the largest arms exporter in the world; can anyone doubt that sending US arms to one side of Syria’s civil war (even, or especially, if it extends the war) helps justify things like the pending $10 billion arms deal to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Or that instability in Syria, whatever its cause, can only help reinforce calls for increasing the existing $30 billion ten-year commitment of US military aid to Israel? No wonder the international Arms Trade Treaty – not to mention any potential for global gun control – remain so far from Washington’s agenda.
There is also the problem of the fundamental illegality of any US military escalation. The only two ways a military attack – including establishing a no-fly zone – by one country against another can be legal is in response to a UN Security Council authorization, which does not exist and is not likely, or in the case of immediate self-defense. And there is no way even the most hawkish warmongers in the US can claim that Syria’s civil war represents that kind of immediate national threat to the United States. Any US attack – with or without a Congressional mandate (which unfortunately would be all too likely forthcoming if requested) – would still be a violation of international law.
That is also the case for Israel’s attacks on Syria, whether or not weapons arriving in Syria may be headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel’s position has wavered – until the recent strikes it had not been leading the charge against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, nor urging the US to escalate its involvement in Syria for the simple reason that Assad’s regime, like that of his father from 1970 till 2000, has been very helpful to Israel. Despite all the puffed up rhetoric about Syria as part of a regional ‘axis of resistance’, the Assad family has largely kept the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights pacified, the border quiet, and the Palestinians in Syria under tight control. Instances of cross-border violence were short-lived and rare.
It should not be forgotten that the Assad regimes have also been very useful to the United States. In 1991 Hafez al-Assad sent his air force to join Bush Senior’s Operation Desert Storm attack on Iraq. By 2002 Bashar al-Assad was a partner in Bush Junior’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program of the global war on terror – accepting prisoners at the request of the US, including Canadian Maher Arar, for interrogation and torture at the hands of Syria’s feared security police.
The first thing is to de-escalate the fighting – to staunch the horrific bloodletting that Syria’s civil war is creating for the Syrian people. That means stopping the arms shipments to all sides. That means negotiating directly with Russia, on a quid pro quo agreement to stop US and allied training and arms shipments to the rebels and re-establishing the EU ban on weapons to the rebels, in return for an end to Russian and allied arms shipments to the Syrian government.
Plans for a diplomatic conference under United Nations auspices must go forward, with more pressure on both sides from their respective sponsors to participate. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described a joint US-Russian commitment, ‘to use the possibilities that the US and Russia have to bring both the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table.’ That’s an important start. Those negotiations will have to include the government of Syria, the armed rebels, and the still-struggling non-violent democratic opposition movement that first launched the Syrian spring more than two years ago. To bring the sides to the table, all the regional players and the parties’ strategic backers will have to be involved as well – Iran as well as Russia, and France and Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar alongside the US, will all have to play a role to push their recalcitrant allies to negotiate. That’s the context within which a Syrian arms embargo would really begin to mean something.
The US, Europe and the wealthy Gulf states should also take more responsibility for funding the cost of caring for the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced. The UN’s humanitarian funding appeals for Syria remain seriously under-resourced – yet too many ‘humanitarians’ continue to debate only military action.
None of this will be easy. But proposing military escalation as a response to fuzzy, uncertain allegations of chemical weapons, or imposing a no-fly zone because Israel attacked Syria, let alone threatening military force to overthrow a regime, is a far too dangerous road. We’ve been there before. Sixty-six percent of Americans oppose greater US military involvement. There’s no great eagerness from the White House. But President Obama, under pressure from London and Paris as well as US neo-cons, has yet to clearly reject the possibility.
That puts the obligation squarely on our shoulders. We need to take responsibility as people, as civil society, as social movements to raise the political costs of a new war in the Middle East so high, that it stays off the table for good.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going