This is the You Tube video of Kevin Ovenden’s speech at the International Anti-war conference in London last Saturday about Syria in several contexts:
1) the shifting balances locally (within and among the political and social forces in Syria underlying the awful civil war), regionally (in the Middle East and North Africa) and globally (the *relative* decline of US hegemony);
2) the ongoing – even if seemingly subterranean radial transformative process in the Arab region – and the all too apparent attempts to derail, corral and/crush it;
3) and lastly: the context of having a movement, with all its effects on the society from previous surges forward. It is valuable. It should be sustained and developed with unity of purpose (which include space for differences of assessment and opinion) and a clear opposition to the “main enemy… at home”.
It also sketches out some of the ways of conducting ourselves within a movement and within the wider left and progressive constituency which can contribute to growth and success, rather than losing sight of the core principles and struggles that bind us together.
One such issue is the struggle for Palestine and for the political transformations that will take both that and the societies across the region forward to a genuine freedom, which cannot happen under dispossession.
The Syrian government is embroiled in a brutal conflict against a polyglot insurgency – the best armed and funded component of which are Sunni jihadists and Salafists intent on turning the country into a killing field. If they succeed then Syria as a secular, sovereign state in which women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and any scintilla of modernity will be no more, plunging the country into an abyss of barbarism akin to that which engulfed Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in 1992.
Should a similar fate befall it, Syria’s destruction would have dire consequences for the region, especially considering the instability that has plagued it on the back of an Arab Spring that is now an Arab Winter, largely due to the West’s distorting influence and intervention in the region. At present three interlinked struggles are taking place – an atavistic religious war unleashed by Sunni fundamentalists against Shia communities in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as against Sunnis who do not adhere to their distorted interpretation of Islam; a conflict between secularism and Islamism; and a struggle for regional hegemony as the West’s allies and proxies – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel – attempt to isolate and neuter Iran. Part of this process involves toppling the Assad government and destroying Hezbollah, which together with Iran constitute three pillars of resistance to the aforementioned western allies and proxies.
Meanwhile, on a geopolitical level, Russia and to a lesser extent China’s support for Iran and Syria is part of a struggle against the West’s objective of maintaining Washington’s writ as leader of a unipolar world against a multipolar alternative in which Russia, China and the other BRIC group of developing economies enjoy parity.
The stakes involved in the Syrian conflict, therefore, could not be higher.
Over the two and a half years of its duration over 100,000 people have been killed and millions more have crossed Syria’s borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, precipitating the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since the end of the Second World War. Moreover an upsurge in suicide bombings in Iraq and in Lebanon – the latest a double suicide bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut – reveals that not only Syria but its neighbours are also facing the same existential threat posed by Sunni extremism.
There is no revolution taking place in Syria. What is unfolding is a foreign funded insurgency which includes thousands of Sunni militants from outwith its borders. Yet what should not be forgotten when it comes to the role of Sunni extremism is that the majority of Sunnis in Syria continue to support Assad and his government. Sunnis make up the bulk of the Syrian Arab Army and many of its officers, while Assad’s wife is a Sunni.
The role of the West in the conflict, which came close to unleashing a disastrous military strike against the country in response to the deployment of chemical weapons in the eastern suburb of Ghouta in Damascus back in August – alleged by Washington, the UK, and France to have been deployed by Syrian government forces, though never proved – has been eminently negative. The West’s political and financial support for the opposition is a major contributory factor to the prolongation of the suffering inflicted on the Syrian people. Daily decapitations and the slaughtering of civilians by groups such as the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS has undoubtedly motivated many Syrians to stand behind the Assad government who were originally sympathetic to the obvious need for political reform.
Attempts to kickstart negotiations between the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition have so far met with failure. With Russia playing a positive role in trying to broker these negotiations, the onus is on the West to put pressure on the Syrian opposition to enter them without unrealistic preconditions such as the resignation of current president, Bashar al-Assad. Why should the millions of Syrians who support the Assad government, who’ve suffered as a result of the conflict, and an army that has proved its willingness over two and a half years to bleed for it, agree to give up their nation’s sovereignty?
When we talk about the opposition this obviously does not and cannot include those whose stock in trade is barbarism and savagery. There can be no place for them in Syria or indeed anywhere in the region. As for the Saudis, whose continued close ties to the West is a badge of shame, the day when this odious clan disappears from the page of history will not be a day too soon.
Some in the West continue to focus their ire on Assad, believing that in the circumstances described it remains possible to hold to a position of being against the Sunni extremists causing mayhem in Syria and also against the Syrian government. This is not serious politics. In fact it is politics reduced to a parlour game, a clear case of cognitive dissonance. If it wasn’t for the government and Syrian army the country would have been destroyed long before now.
George Orwell understood this when he wrote: ”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Of course, whether we in the West support or condemn those struggling on the ground against barbarism in Syria is neither here nor there in the scheme of things. But on the level of understanding the stakes involved it matters hugely, especially as we carry the burden of living in those countries responsible for sowing the chaos and carnage that continues in Iraq and Libya on the basis of toppling vicious dictators.
For progressive and liberal commentators to follow the same narrative now when it comes to Syria is worse than a mistake it’s a crime.
For those who don’t know, Mother Agnes is mother superior at the Monastery and Convent of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria.
She risks her life every day not only due to her stance against the western backed insurgency that is ripping Syria apart, but also because she happens to be a nun – a member of Syria’s Christian minority – and as such deemed ripe for the slaughter by the savages who are cutting off the heads of people like her for sport.
She has spoken in Ireland and Australia about what is unfolding in Syria, and she has organised an international delegation led by Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire to come to Syria to see for themselves. She is one of the main organizers of Mussalaha (“Reconciliation”), a popular movement in Syria that mediates disputes and organizes ceasefires between opposing forces.
Mother Agnes was invited to speak at a Stop the War conference in London on November 30. However after hearing that two other speakers scheduled to speak at the event – Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill – were threatening to withdraw unless her invitation was rescinded by the organisers, Mother Agnes took the decision to withdraw from the conference of her own volition.
She has been demonised by her detractors as a ‘pro regime stooge’. As with the majority of Syrians who support the Assad government – and none more so than Syria’s various minority communities – this is probably based on the fact that she lives in the country and understands that the only force currently capable of preventing Syria being turned into a killing field by a western and Saudi backed insurgency is the Syrian government.
Below is Mother Agnes’ statement on her decision to withdraw from the conference:
To the Organizing Committee of the International Anti-War Conference
My dear friends,
It has come to my attention that my participation in your conference has become a matter of serious contention, even prompting some other speakers to consider withdrawing. This is apparently due to a campaign of cruel and unsubstantiated accusations which seek to work against my efforts and those of the Mussalaha (Reconciliation) Initiative in Syria.
The basis of our work toward peace is reconciliation and forgiveness. This means extending an olive branch to some who may initially refuse it, and accepting an olive branch from others who are despised, even by our friends.
In the case of Syria, I am guided by the terrible events of human provenance that are reaping misery and death without end in sight. I and my fellow members of the Mussalaha movement feel compelled to find a path toward national redemption that applies the principles of reconciliation and forgiveness that is different from either the way of the sword or even the nonviolent exclusion of other Syrians, whatever their views or affiliations may be. This is by its nature a difficult path but I am a cleric and am guided by my love for all. We are all children of God.
Some may feel that an injustice will be done if I speak at your conference. Others may think that injustice will be done if I do not. Because my participation in your conference may be used by some to distract from your valuable efforts towards peace, non-violence and reconciliation, I believe it best to withdraw from participation.
I thank you for your sincere invitation, and wish to offer my blessings for a successful conference that brings together a multitude of people of good will who will work together for peace and justice through mutual cooperation and I hope we shall at a future date have an opportunity to meet and discuss this issue and the wider work of the Mussalaha in Syria.
MOSCOW — RECENT events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.
Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.
The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.
Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy inSyria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.
The world reacts by asking: if you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.
We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.
A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.
I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations.
If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
The dictum that a week is a long time in politics has never been more accurate when we consider the proposed military action against Syria and how what began as the unfolding of the same old script, dictating Britain’s eager participation in joint military action with the US, ended in a momentous defeat for the principal of interventionism.
At the beginning of the week a US-led military strike against Syria, beginning this weekend, seemed assured. Statements emanating from Washington, London, and Paris conformed to the same bellicose and Churchillian rhetoric we’ve become used to over the past decade of western military interventions and adventures. The ships and aircraft had been deployed to the region and the focus of the commentariat, political analysts, and military experts had shifted from ‘if’ to ‘when’ the attack was going to take place, with the only thing left to ponder how big, probable targets, and outcomes.
No one could have predicted that the British parliament would not only refuse to endorse David Cameron’s motion for support in principle for Britain’s participation in the military operation, but that it would also vote against Ed Miliband’s amendment supporting military action once the UN inspectors had reported back to the UN.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that both Cameron’s and Miliband’s justification for military action – i.e. humanitarian intervention bypassing the UN – would have constituted a breach of international law. No such provision exists within international law for one state or any constellation of states to take aggressive military action by themselves on this basis.
The credit for not only the British government’s defeat in the Commons, but now also the Obama administration’s U-turn with its decision to seek Congressional approval before they themselves embark on military action, lies with the British public. Opinion poll after opinion poll in the days leading up to the parliamentary debate revealed a clear consensus against military action. If the reply I received from my own constituency MP to my letter demanding a No vote is anything to go by, MPs were deluged with messages and phone calls from members of the public on the issue.
The result not only rocked the British Establishment, it has clearly rocked Washington, giving succour and momentum to a rising tide of antiwar sentiment in the US.
The shadow of Iraq undoubtedly loomed large of events this week, but so did an understanding of what the specific dynamic of the Syrian conflict involves, brilliantly argued by George Galloway in his speech during the debate. If Britain had voted to join the US and France in a combined action against Syria this week, it would have effectively meant all three countries entering a military alliance with Al Qaeda. The Nusra Front – an Al Qaeda affiliate – is the largest, best armed and funded of the opposition forces currently fighting the Syrian government, and would have been the main beneficiaries of any such military strike, lending them a morale boost at a time when the Syrian army and its allies are on the offensive.
Just pause to consider this for a moment. The British government would have been joining forces with the same ideology that was behind the atrocities of 9/11, 7/7, the Madrid bomb, and most recently and horrifically the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
So, yes, the British public certainly takes the credit for the remarkable turnaround that we’ve seen this week when it comes to British foreign policy and its relationship with Washington. Hopefully it marks the beginning of the end of the so-called special relationship, wherein Britain has consistently filled the role of obedient and eager satrap in service to US power and hegemony around the world.
At this juncture a few words need to be said about the antiwar movement.
I used to be active with the Stop the War Coalition and I still support the work they do, even if I disagree with their analysis on certain issues. The fact they’ve remained in existence this long is a laudable achievement and those involved deserve credit for remaining staunch for so long, particularly through the lean years.
Where I strongly disagree is with the assertions being made by some within Stop the War that the defeat suffered by Cameron and other pro interventionists in Syria this past week was down to them. This is false.
The bulk of the credit for this week’s vote belongs to those who’ve resisted the West’s decade long assault in the region with their lives. The Afghan and Iraqi people ensured that Britain’s military presence in their respective countries has come at a heavy price, too heavy to make anything other than a slam dunk – ala Libya – worth the risk of getting embroiled in another quagmire. By any objective measure it has been the extent of resistance to the US-led occupations of their respective countries that has truly shaped British public opinion when it comes to the concept of interventionism.
Though the bulk of the political class would never dare acknowledge it, the truth is that Britain’s military involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq ended in military defeat. British forces were more or less chased out of Basra and lost on the ground in Helmand. In both cases they had to be bailed out by the US.
The antiwar movement’s role as a political pole of resistance has undoubtedly been a significant factor in ensuring the British public never forgets Blair’s execrable role and the lies he concocted to take the country into the war in Iraq. But if Iraq had gone according to plan – i.e. it had been pacified at none too great a cost – there is little doubt Britain’s appetite for similar ‘humanitarian interventions’ and military adventures would have continued unabated.
The role of the Iraqi and Afghan people in diminishing the British Establishment’s and a large section of British society’s addiction to war against the people of the Global South should never be forgotten.