Tag Archives: Stop the War Coalition

Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria

Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 January 2016

I have a lot of respect for Peter Tatchell’s principled and extensive human rights activism. However, when it comes to Syria many of his positions seem to be confused and counterproductive – and arguably pro-Western military intervention, even if he doesn’t realise this himself. Some of his recent criticisms of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC or STW) have also been illogical (though, of course, I oppose him being manhandled at the recent STWC protest). As Interventions Watch blog has noted, Tatchell is “essentially agitating for military intervention in Syria, while claiming the mantle of the anti-war movement, and smearing the actual one”. Therefore, like Interventions Watch (who I heavily cite in this blog), I think it is important to counter his assertions.

I set out his arguments and some basic responses below.

Tatchell, Twitter, 13 December 2015: “STW refuses to organise or support demos against bombing by Assad & Russia and against Iran & Hezbollah intervention”

As a British citizen I share responsibility for the actions of the UK government and its allies. This is because I pay my taxes and, more importantly, have immeasurably more power to influence UK government policy than I do the Russian or Syrian governments, who do not represent me in anyway and for whose actions I have no control over. As Noam Chomsky has noted: “It’s a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.”

The same, I would argue, goes for anti-war movements around the world – their primary concern should be the actions of their own governments. This is especially true when your government is the closest ally of the most powerful nation on earth, and is itself one of the major players on the world stage.

Tatchell goes one further, castigating STWC for not protesting against ISIS (Islamic State). Of course people should be free to demonstrate against ISIS in the UK but I can’t think of a more wasteful use of activist energy when you consider ISIS is despised by all of the UK media (see Andrew Neil’s responseto the Paris attack on the supposedly neutral BBC), all political parties and 99 percent of the general public. Who, then, is a protest against ISIS in the UK supposed to influence and persuade?

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “John Rees of Stop The War says I was at its event last night with people urging UK bombing of Syria. Photo shows lie”

In fact video footage from the relatively small demonstration against Jeremy Corbyn attending the STWC dinner show that if anyone is lying it is Tatchell, with one banner reading “Thanks to Britain for the airstrikes”.

More broadly, at the demonstration Tatchell stood next to journalist James Bloodworth, who is a supporter of Western military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a defender of US drone strikes in the region – actions which, of course, have led to hundreds of civilian deaths and likely energised extremist groups. Bloodworth also supports military action against ISIS in Iraq. Tatchell claims Bloodworth doesn’t support drone strikes.

Tatchell, Twitter, 6 October 2015: “A UN No-Fly-Zone & civilian safe havens would stop Assad killing innocents, deescalate conflict & save lives”

We need to be clear what a no-fly zone is. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and Head of US European Command: “I know it sounds stark, but what I always tell people when they talk to me about a no-fly zone is… it’s basically to start a war with that country because you are going to have to go in and kinetically take out their air defense capability”.

General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) during the 2011 Libyan intervention: “We should make no bones about it. It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel”.

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “Give the Syrian democratic forces anti-aircraft missiles. That’s the way to create a no-bomb zone without bombing” and “Kurds need heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS. More effective than bombing”

These tweets echoes an article Tatchell recently published in which he argued a “successful strategy might be to empower” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq – both of which have been fighting Islamic State.

Tatchell’s support for arming sections of the violent resistance to the Assad government and ISIS is opposed by a plethora of NGOs, human rights organisations and expert testimony (I understand this list is very long but I think it’s important to show just how out of step Tatchell is with organisations such as the United Nations, Oxfam and Amnesty International):

– “It is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country. It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating international principles of human rights and international law. I urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 20 June 2015

– “The ongoing provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents feeds additional violence. Any further militarization of the conflict must be avoided at all costs.” – Navi Pillay, UN human rights chief, 2 July 2012

– “The threat of arming the rebels is unlikely to convince Assad to change his stance. Every time the rebels have made gains, the regime has been sent a vast supply of arms, financial support and even fighters from its key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah… Arming the rebels is unlikely to strengthen the so-called moderates either.” – Dr Christopher Phillips, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, 28 May 2013

– “Western arming of rebels is ill-advised given its likely limited impact on the ground, encouragement of escalation and maximalism, and the inability to guarantee in whose hands weapons will end up.” – Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy, European Council on Foreign Relations, 24 May 2013

– “Arming rebel and opposition forces will have unforeseen long-term consequences for Syria and the region and will not assist in finding a non-military solution to this terrible situation.” – Campaign Against Arms Trade, 29 May 2013

– “Sending arms is unlikely to provide a solution”. – David Owen, former UK Foreign Secretary and former EU Co-Chair of the peace negotiations in the former Yugoslavia, 4 May 2013

–“Syria is already awash in weapons that will be circulating in the area for years to come. Funneling more arms to the opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.” – Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organisation, 9 May 2013

– “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths, more long-term damage to infrastructure and the economy, and greater poverty in Syria. Instead, the United States and international community should focus on increasing diplomatic outreach, demonstrating to all sides the imperative of reaching a political solution.” – Oxfam America, 1 May 2013

In October 2015 Amnesty International released a report that found “evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages” in areas of northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD (the political party of the YPG militia). “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the [PYD-controlled] Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” Lama Fakih, a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, noted. When I raised the report with Tatchell, he replied: “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians”.

So, to summarise, we have the strange phenomenon of a self-professed anti-imperialist, anti-war, human rights activist urging the West to act in ways that would, according to experts and respected human rights organisations, increase the level of violence, prolong the war, and would lead to the West arming groups that have carried out actions that amount to war crimes, according to Amnesty International.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that in calling for the arming of rebel groups in Syria, 2015 Peter Tatchell is opposed by 2013 Peter Tatchell, who carried a placard with the slogan “UN arms embargo” at an anti-war demonstration. It also contradicts the person standing a few feet from Tatchell at the protest against Corbyn attending the Stop the War dinner who is holding a placard that also calls for a “UN arms embargo”.)

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “Kurds need… anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS. More effective than bombing”

As ISIS doesn’t have an airforce, I tweeted Tatchell asking him why the Kurds need anti-aircraft missiles. His response? “ISIS may capture helicopters. Democratic Syrians need anti-aircraft missiles to defend against Assads bombing”.

So, according to Tatchell, we should provide the Kurds with anti-aircraft missiles in the unlikely event ISIS capture and are able to run and pilot attack helicopters. Attack helicopters which Tatchell presumably thinks ISIS will be able to fly freely despite the US, Russian, UK and French aircraft dominating the airspace over significant part of Syria.

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq

The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
4 April 2013

In the last few weeks I have been doing a number of talks around England to promote my new book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’. At a couple of talks a few people have raised objections to some of the criticisms of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that I make. Below, I attempt to address these objections by summarising my findings about STWC and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from the more than 110 interviews and research I conducted for the book.

STWC has been the leading organisation in the UK anti-war movement since its establishment in 2001. In particular, it was the most significant member of the tripartite coalition that led the movement against the Iraq War – the other members of which were the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Given the importance of the STWC, then, it’s worth considering one of the main debates that surrounded it – the role of the SWP.

According to many people I interviewed, STWC started out as a broad-based coalition. However, the SWP gradually came to dominate its leadership and effectively took control after 2003. Senior members of the SWP Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and John Rees (all of whom left the party in 2010) organised STWC’s founding meeting, and have made up the core leadership ever since. Importantly, many of the other senior members of STWC such as Andrew Murray, Andrew Burgin and CND’s Kate Hudson are close allies of German, Nineham and Rees.

As the chief architects (along with CND and MAB) of the 15 February 2003 anti-war march in London – the largest demonstration in British history – I applaud and am thankful to the STWC leadership for their extraordinary level of work. However, many of the people I interviewed were often frustrated and/or angry about the SWP’s dominating role in STWC. As peace activist Gabriel Carlyle told me: “I would put it this way: the SWP were probably the anti-war movement’s best asset and, in some respects, its greatest liability as well.” The SWP were the movement’s “best asset” because, as many people agreed, they were excellent organisers and extremely dedicated activists who helped to quickly build one of the largest social movements in our nation’s history. As Carlyle amusingly put it: “If it had been up to the traditional peace movement to organise the response [to the impending invasion of Iraq], they might have had a candlelit vigil with 200 people.”

In terms of the SWP being the anti-war movement’s “greatest liability”, many people I interviewed, including people previously centrally involved in STWC, criticised the SWP’s centralised style of working and methods which were felt to be controlling, aggressive and bullying. This destructive behaviour, according to activist Yasmin Khan, “played a part in the downfall of the movement.” Carol Naughton, the Chair of CND from 2001-3, noted in a ‘Strictly Confidential’ June 2003 memo that STWC “did not seem to understand or accept the culture of working in partnership once we had agreement to go ahead with joint events.” More concerning, Naughton reported that she “was on the end of some very unpleasant, aggressive and abusive phone calls from the Coalition” and that she “was lied to and misled by [STW] Coalition leadership” who she found “to be duplicitous and manipulative in trying to get my agreement when I had given them a decision that they disliked.”

STWC had a Steering Group, made up of representatives from different organisations, which met regularly. However, according to Mike Podmore, who was on the Steering Group himself in 2003, the SWP “orchestrated these meetings completely” with dissenting views “argued or shouted down.” James O’Nions, a former member of the SWP and member of the Steering Group, agrees with Podmore. For O’Nions, the Steering Group:

Was run a bit like any Socialist Workers Party conference. You had a member of the SWP central committee give a spiel about what we should think about a certain thing, and then there would be a discussion.  But there was no common attempt to find a solution. Rather the solution had already been agreed, and the session was about the officers of the Stop the War Coalition winning over everyone else to what they wanted and trying to get people to mobilise them around it. That is how the SWP operate basically.

Mike Marqusee, a veteran activist and press officer with STWC from 2001-3, goes further:

They [the SWP] used methods to isolate or exclude people or discredit people who were questioning their leadership that are not acceptable, including smearing people, misrepresenting them and whispering things about them that weren’t true. There was a fear of what they considered to be mavericks or loose cannons. What is an anti-war movement without mavericks and loose cannons? I mean please. The anti-Vietnam War movement wouldn’t have got anywhere if it had excluded those people because they were doing the whole show from the beginning.

Arguably the SWP’s domination of STWC led to organised direct action and civil disobedience not being pursued fully by the anti-war movement in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. What the interviews I conducted show was that after 15 February 2003 there was an attempt to have a serious debate in STWC about how to move the movement forward, and whether direct action should be pursued. However, according to Marqusee an open discussion “was not favoured by the SWP or a number of the other leaders of the Coalition.” Instead, according to Marqusee “they began labelling people who were saying they wanted a different [tactical] emphasis as divisive.” Not only did STWC not support groups looking to carry out organised direct action, according to Naughton they actually tried to undermine it. In her ‘Strictly Confidential’ CND memo she notes:

Incidents happened that were actively countering the work that CND was doing such as the office of the [Stop the War] Coalition telling callers that the CND [direct action] event[s] in Whitehall and the Fairford and Menwith demos were all cancelled when in fact all of these were well and truly going ahead. I have personal experience of this as I received the emails and phoned myself to check it out.

Interestingly, despite multiple defections from the SWP since 2003, there seems to be agreement between current and former senior members, in that they all see the role of the party in STWC as an unqualified success. For example, Alex Callinicos, a current member of the SWP’s Central Committee, recently amused himself by noting journalist Owen Jones agreed with him that the SWP played a vital role in STWC. Despite strongly challenging the SWP leadership over the party’s on-going rape scandal, influential former member Richard Seymour broadly agrees with Callinicos on STWC. Replying to journalist Laurie Penny’s assertion that the SWP “has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade” the Lenin’s Tomb blogger praised the SWP’s role in STWC, which he described as “perhaps the most high profile campaign of the last decade… which brought together Labour party members, CNDers, members of various far left groups, and – once again – SWP members in a leading role.” Finally there are German, Rees and Nineham and their supporters, who left the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire. As noted these people were the senior members of the SWP in STWC, and still effectively control STWC. The two books they produced on the anti-war movement – Chris Nineham’s ‘The People v Tony Blair’ and Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Mass Movement, the official STWC history of the anti-Iraq War movement written by Andrew Murray and Lindesay German – are both uncritically positive about SWP’s role in STWC. The latter book bears mentioning for another reason as well. One interviewee told me they considered this book a “joke” because it “looks like something from Soviet USSR – just like Lenin was airbrushed out of history by Stalin, key figures in the Stop the War movement were eroded out of history by the SWP.” Thus, except for one passing mention, the important role played by Marqusee who fell out with the leadership in 2003, is missing from the book.

Lastly, as far as I can tell*, there was no serious attempt to reflect critically on the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-Iraq War movement at the ‘Confronting War 10 Years On’ conference organised by STWC in London on 9 February 2013.

These considerations support the judgement of Marqusee, made after he parted company with STWC, that “the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practice. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them.”

I would like to reiterate I think the STWC leadership did a brilliant job in growing and leading the largest social movement in recent British history. However, we cannot escape the fact that while the anti-Iraq war movement had many important achievements, it was unable to exert enough pressure on the Government at the crucial time. We will never know, but it is worth noting the possibility that different organisational and tactical approaches could have led to a different political outcome regarding the Iraq war – a sobering thought.

Two on-going trends make the critical perspectives I present above all the more important. Firstly, the Government’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy means we desperately need an active and effective anti-war movement. And secondly, the same people who dominated – and continue to dominate – STWC are now leading the Coalition of Resistance, the group which seems to be taking a lead role in the movement against the Government’s austerity agenda. Surely, then, if we want to have the broadest, most effective anti-war and anti-cuts movements, we need to be aware of, and have an honest and open discussion about, the problems within STWC in the early 2000s?
*I didn’t attend the conference but have watched many of the videos of the talks from the day.