By Mark Boothroyd
Syria Solidarity activists attended the Stop The War Coalition’s “Confronting a World at War” conference last Saturday to call for solidarity with the Syrian people.
We started leafleting the conference early, and almost immediately came into contact with Stop The War’s less savoury side. Several older activists leafleting the conference for their respective causes asked us if we “support the jihadists” and referred to us as “the pro-ISIS lot”. While not necessarily representative, the fact these comments were heard at all tells you a lot about the milieu that Stop The War has been attracting with its political positions.
Around half those attending took our leaflets, and the start to the conference must have been small as less than 100 entered the doors at the beginning. Several organisers came out to urge people to go inside as the event was starting; a bit of desperation to fill empty seats perhaps.
Several more of us returned at the lunch break to leaflet again. As activists came out we engaged several in discussions. Some quickly descended into arguments with people who were openly pro-regime. However we found lots of people sympathised with the Syrian revolt, and pro-revolution activists were in attendance too and were glad to see us arguing the case for the revolution. One thing to note was the make up of the conference. The conference was overwhelmingly white and middle aged. Absent were the hundreds of young Muslims who were the vanguard of the Stop The War movement in its heyday. Not surprising when Stop The War has effectively turned it back on providing solidarity with the largest democratic revolts in the Muslim world.
After the break we went inside and attended the meeting on ISIS, Imperialism and the Middle East. Speaking were Seumas Milne, Lindsey German and Erdelan Baran. Milne’s talk focused on the alleged role the US has facilitating the growth of ISIS in order to destabilise and weaken the Syrian regime. This was basically a recounting of his latest Guardian article where he makes this claim based on a recently released Defence Intelligence Agency document. Milne’s arguments don’t really stand up to scrutiny when you consider the government which ISIS has wreaked the most havoc on has been the US-supported government of Iraq, and the reality that the Syrian regime and ISIS have rarely clashed militarily. In fact the majority of ISIS attacks have been on the Syrian rebels and on Kurdish groups. Milne’s research has been taken apart in more detail by Michael Karadjis and Brian Slocock.
Milne also alleged that Israel had been backing Syrian rebels in the area around the Golan Heights, saying it wasn’t a coincidence that there were no clashes between the rebels and Israel there. This argument would better apply to the Syrian regime, because for forty years the Assad dynasty has ensured that not a single bullet was fired across the Golan by the Syrian Arab Army. The fact that rebels are not attacking Israel only shows their main focus is on removing the regime, the main source of their oppression.
German gave a standard Stop The War argument, that the devastation wracking the Middle East at present was due to the long legacy of Western imperialist intervention in the region. While certainly true that the Iraq invasion and occupation remain terrible crimes against humanity, and the US occupation created the conditions which allow ISIS/ISIL to take root in Iraq, it is the more immediate history since the beginning of the Arab Spring which has shaped recent events.
ISIS/ISIL would never have been able to move into Syria without the devastation visited upon the people by the Syrian regime through its attempts to crush the Syrian revolt. It was the Syrian regime’s brutal and murderous quashing of mass non-violent, anti-sectarian, anti-regime protests which laid the basis for ISIS explosive growth in support in the last two years.
These events didn’t receive a mention by the speakers. Instead they focused entirely on the West’s role, ignoring or covering over the role of the Syrian regime and its backers in Tehran and Moscow. This centring of the narrative on events in the West ignores the regime’s actions, and obscures the agency of those struggling in Syria against the regime.
The open discussion was started off by pro-regime attendees who voiced shameful sentiments which should have disgusted all those present. Regime supporter Declan Hayes called for more effort in lobbying the British government to support Assad, and said he was proud to have spent the last three months with the Syrian Arab Army. This was followed by another speaker posing questions to the panel asking them whether they support the Assad regime, and whether they would support a peace plan that preserved Assad as president of Syria; neither Milne nor German answered those questions. A couple of activists raised the fact of the Syrian peoples democratic revolt against the regime, and the need for solidarity with the people, but these were minority voices in the discussion.
Syria Solidarity activists attempted to counter the narrative, intervening to bring the voice of Arab activists into the debate. Omar Sabbour from Sussex Friends of Syria decried the fact that the speakers had ignored Arab Spring activists who warned them what would happen if solidarity was not forthcoming for the Arab revolts; leaving the protestors isolated and viciously repressed. Sabbour criticised Stop The War for adding to the Islamophobic narrative of the Western media by focusing on ISIS but not the regime, and lumping all Syrian rebels under the banner of Al-Qaeda and jihadists.
Sabbour was cut off and loudly heckled by some present who didn’t like the anger he directed at the top table. This anger was entirely justified and represented the pent up frustrations of many solidarity activists who have spent the last four years watching Stop The War betray its founding principles by failing to side with the oppressed against the oppressor.
The only Syrian voice in the debate was raised by Abdulaziz Almashi, co-founder of the Syria Solidarity Movement who challenged the hypocrisy of the speakers. Almashi highlighted the role of the regime in facilitating the rise of ISIS, pointing out that four university classmates of his were arrested by the regime in 2007 and jailed on charges of Islamic terrorism. These same classmates were released by the regime in June 2011, three months after the uprising began. All of these previously peaceful and promising students had been radicalised in jail, and are now Emirs in ISIS in Aleppo province.
Almashi also gave voice to the anti-imperialism of the Syrian uprising, saying they didn’t want the US or Britain in their country interfering with their revolution, and neither did they want Iran, Russia or Hezbollah. This last comment received a round of applause.
After the session many people came and spoke to us and said they sympathised with what we argued. We received invitations to speak at local Stop The War groups, and our leaflet was readily taken by many. While a small protest, it was worthwhile to raise the authentic voice of the Syrian revolution against those who try and bury it beneath a mountain of lies and distortions.