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Londoners Demonstrated For and Against Military Intervention in Syria Yesterday

I went down to Whitehall to see what they had to say.

by Matthew Francey
29 August 2013, 10:05am

Since last week's alleged chemical attacks in Syria, Western interest in the country's civil war has escalated considerably. The US UK and France, unsurprisingly, have been the most vocal, moving quickly to condemn the Syrian government, with President Obama saying yesterday, "We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these [attacks] out."

For his part, David Cameron recalled Parliament early to debate direct military action in Syria, proposing that the UK's involvement be put to a vote in the House of Commons. While he assured the public that, “this is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance on Syria”, but about chemical weapons, it didn’t take long for people to clock some similarities. Debating military action before you've received proof of what you're angry about sounds a lot like another war that the West got involved in a decade ago. And, unless you count another burgeoning civil war in Iraq as a success, it's near impossible to retrospectively justify that attempt to stabilise Middle Eastern politics.

This morning, it was announced that Parliament would now delay their decision on whether or not to wade into the mess in Syria. They will discuss it today but any vote will be left until after the UN have delivered their report on the chemical attack that took place last week. Still, anti-war protesters weren't to know that yesterday, and with the lingering fallout of the Iraq war, anger at a proposed increase in military spending during a time of austerity and the small matter of Syria's allies China and Russia telling us to stay out of it, the British public isn’t short of reasons to be wary of starting another war in the Middle East.

A protest against Western military intervention in Syria was hastily arranged to take place outside Downing Street yesterday afternoon. I went along to find out how the protesters were planning to stop the government from starting World War III.

When I arrived at the demo, around 400 people were already there, waving “Hands Off Syria” placards and chanting, “Cut war, not welfare!”

A stage had been set up and Labour MP and vocal anti-war campaigner Diane Abbott was declaring that she would be voting against any direct military intervention in Syria if and when it was put to her in the Commons.

After Diane, writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali took to the stage to denounce Western military intervention in Syria, calling the politicians hypocritical and suggesting that allegations of the use of chemical weapons were merely an excuse to weaken al-Assad's government. I managed to catch up with him after his speech.

VICE: Hi Tariq. Last week's images of the chemical weapons aftermath were incredibly harrowing – why are you so against intervention?
Tariq Ali: I’m against interventions because they make the situation worse. I don’t know of a single intervention that has actually made the situation better. This is already a messy situation – a thousand people have been killed in Egypt, Bahrain is repressed and Syria is in the middle of a civil war. The West is backing one side of this civil war, but it’s best not to allow the West to go to war, so we have to try.

Are you worried it could lead to a wider conflict?
I don’t think it will lead to a wider military conflict, but there will certainly be a wider political one.

If proof emerges that chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime, would you support intervention?
We don’t know yet. We don’t know if they’ve been used yet and we don’t know who’s used them. I’m not in favour of war, even if chemical weapons have been used. The Americans used them in Fallujah and who stopped that? This is an excuse, which is being manufactured – but we are not sure if it’s a truth or a lie.

What do you think are the government’s true motives for military action in Syria?
I think they’re going in to weaken the government and ensure it doesn’t win the civil war.

As the speeches started to die down, some of the protesters grew bored of chanting and waving placards, deciding instead that an impromptu roadblock was the best way to grab the government’s attention.

There were a few minutes of chaos as police tried to stop angry protesters from getting run over by double-decker buses. But after enough people had joined in, the cops opted for a hands off approach, fell back and allowed everyone to sit in the middle of the road, just metres from the Prime Minister's house.

Steve Hadley – Assistant General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) – was one of the evening’s speakers and had called for civil disobedience as the only way to make the government listen. I caught up with him to find out how being disobedient was going to stop us from bombing Syria.

During your speech, you called for civil disobedience as the only way to make the government pay attention, and it seems like people were listening. Do you think blocking Whitehall will stop the government from bombing Syria?
Steve Hedley: Well, it’ll do more than marching up and down the street then going home. We had a million people march against the war in Iraq and it had absolutely no effect. We’ve got to up the ante. If it means people getting arrested for civil disobedience, that’s what it’s going to take.

Do you see hypocrisy in America using chemical weapons as a reason to attack Assad?
John Kerry served in Vietnam, where they used phosphorus, Agent Orange and all sorts of chemical weapons. And not just in Vietnam – it spilled over to Cambodia. At the moment, we’ve got drones terrorising people in Pakistan. How is that any different?

Why do you think America really wants to get rid of Assad?
I think it goes back to the 90s and the NeoCon strategy. Ultimately, it’s for the control of oil and other energy. I think that they want to Balkanise the Middle East. This madness has been spread all over the world. We’ve got fracking in this country now – a process that has been proven to cause earthquakes and contaminate the water supply. So, like everything, it’s all about energy, money and profits.

After an hour or so, the police got bored of standing around and waiting for the protesters to leave, so they started trying to clear the roads instead.

After some threatening talk about kettling, they managed to persuade everyone to move onto the pavement. Everyone except this guy. The police pleaded with him for what seemed like an hour, while he sat there cross-legged like some kind of H&M guru. But, in the end, he wouldn't be talked out of his one-man sit-in. As the police were taking him away, he told me that he didn’t want to be arrested but that he couldn’t let the government start another war.

About ten metres down Whitehall, a counter demonstration was taking place. These guys were holding Free Syrian Army flags, waving photos of alleged chemical weapons victims and holding dead doll babies in body bags. They were making a lot of noise, considering their vastly inferior numbers, so I walked over to ask Fali – a Syrian living in London – why he wanted UN forces to bomb his homeland.

Hi Fali. What are you and your friends campaigning for?
Fali: We need intervention by airstrike. We need them to bomb Assad from the air. We’re not asking for people to come in on the ground. We don’t need the American or the British army on the ground; we have our Free Syrian Army on the ground who can sort everything out. We’re asking Western governments to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and to attack Assad’s military bases. We don’t want anyone on the ground.

Are you not concerned that once Western forces get involved in the conflict the whole thing could spiral and lead to even more loss of life?
Obviously that’s a concern, yeah. We are all human and often conflicts can escalate and innocent people will get hurt or even killed, but come on – Assad has killed thousands of people and nobody’s taken any action. If a military intervention comes, then maybe we can finally stop Assad. Obviously people will lose their lives, but what is the solution? We can’t step down and we can’t leave it to the politicians.

So why do you think the West have been so reluctant to get involved in the conflict? Do you feel Syria has been neglected?
They want Assad to stay in power. They don’t want him to go anywhere. It’s been almost 29 months now with no help from anyone. Now, because it’s been so long, they’re trying to figure out who the strongest side is. If they think that Assad is getting weaker, then maybe they’ll choose to back the Free Syrian Army. But obviously they’re not with the Syrian people – they don’t care about us. If they did, they would have acted a long time ago.

On my way back to the anti-intervention demo, I ran into Kaya, an artist who fights injustice by painting naked pictures of David Cameron and Barack Obama.

Hey Kaya, lovely paintings. Can you talk me through them?
Kaya: These are the people who conspire to attack Syria. It’s a naked conspiracy to destroy Syria and then Iran. Sooner or later, the conspirators' crimes will come to light, just like the war in Iraq. The wars are the economy. If you control the area, then you control the income of the area. It’s as simple as that. The rest is just secondary; it doesn’t matter how many thousands of people die.

My weapon is my pictures. I use satire and satire is the best weapon. One picture can say all that needs to be said.

I don't know, I think I'd rather face a satirical weapon than a chemical one. Thanks though.

Jeremy Corbyn is the Labour MP for Islington North and a key organiser of yesterday's event. He spent the evening introducing the guest speakers and talking to members of the press. I waited my turn and had a quick chat.

Why are you so opposed to Western intervention in Syria?
Jeremy Corbyn MP: I don’t believe the motives of the West are entirely honourable in this matter. I’m not an apologist for the Syrian regime and I certainly condemn the use of chemical weapons by anybody. The UN inspectors have not yet come to a conclusion on whether chemical weapons were used, and I think we should at least wait for that. Instead of moving loads of weaponry around, we should be calling a conference with the Russians, Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council in Syria to bring about a peaceful solution and not another war.

If the Assad regime was found to have used chemical weapons, would that justify Western intervention?
No, I don’t think it does. Obviously chemical weapons are wrong and illegal – as are nuclear weapons, as are depleted uranium, as are land mines. But does that justify the bombardment of the whole country with the consequences being the death of hundreds of people who had nothing to do with chemical weapons or the use of them?

One of the most vocal pro-intervention states has been France. What do they stand to gain from toppling Assad?
Well, I think France has pretensions of its previous colonial grandeur. The Allies made an agreement during the First World War that France would get control of Syria and Lebanon, and even during the Second World War the Free French Forces, which were led by Charles de Gaulle – instead of fighting the Nazis at home, as they should’ve been doing – were busy killing proponents of Syrian independence. So the French colonial interest continues, as does the British.

Ten years ago, a million people tried to stop Britain and America invading Iraq. That failed. What can be done to stop it happening in Syria?
This is very much déjà vu. We had a young, over confident Prime Minister who was so totally convinced of his own abilities to take a country to war. Then it was Tony Blair; this time it’s David Cameron. The result of the Iraq war was the destruction of so many lives in Iraq, but also a deep cynicism in the British political system, and I think we’re still having to live with that today.

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Whichever way the vote goes, it's safe to say that – sadly – it's unlikely any of the people I spoke to yesterday, spending their evening shouting outside Whitehall, will have had anything to do with the decision.  

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey

More from Syria:

Britain Is Deluded if It Thinks It Can Bomb Syria to Freedom

The Syrian Electronic Army Talks About Tuesday’s Hacks

Is the Syrian Regime Responsible for the Worst Chemical Attack in Decades?