Monday, 2 December 2013

Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah’s friends in London



Above: cartoon by protesters in Kafranbel, Syria. They see Obama trading away Syria under the table in order to get his Iran deal. Read more on Kafranbel’s history of protest in Rising Up and Rising Down, Amal Hanano’s October article for Foreign Policy.

A suspicion similar to the one expressed in the above cartoon appears in an article by Politico editor Susan B Glasser, The Price of Smart Power: Will Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran come at the cost of Syrian lives?

At Now Lebanon, Michael Weiss gives his version of this analysis, The Invisible Rider on the Deal: Syria has been ceded to Iran in exchange for a six-month pause on Tehran’s nuclear program.

The core of the analysis is this:
  1. Obama’s aim is to keep the US out of any major war. This requires avoiding direct involvement in the war in Syria, and avoiding war with Iran.

  2. The greatest risks that might lead the US into war are WMD proliferation in Syria or Iran, or an outright Al Qaeda victory in Syria.

  3. The deal to contain and remove chemical weapons in Syria requires the survival of the Assad regime, and the deal to contain nuclear development in Iran requires the co-operation of the Iranian regime. Both of those factors weigh against a strategy of building up non-Al Qaeda rebel forces in Syria in order to counter Al Qaeda, instead they weigh in favour of allowing Iran to continue to support the Assad regime in order to contain Al Qaeda and force the rest of the Syrian opposition to negotiate a settlement.
In essence Obama’s strategy seems to seek a cold peace by allowing Iran to consolidate a Tehran Bloc from Lebanon to.. Afghanistan? The eastern limit is not yet clear. What is clear is that while Iran negotiates on its nuclear program, its proxy force Hezbollah, along with other forces armed and trained by Iran, has a relatively free hand to keep Assad in power in Syria.



The test of this ‘Tehran Bloc’ policy’s wisdom, on its own terms, is not whether such an arrangement would best serve those having to live under it, but whether such an Iranian empire would be more stable at less cost to the US than any other available option. Reasons to doubt this policy’s wisdom in those terms begin with Syria, but do not end there.

On Syria, one might doubt how ready the regime’s opponents will be to peacefully accept its continuance in part or all of Syria when over 110,000 have been violently killed, over 11,000 of them children. There are over two million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries (a quarter of them children) and a further million internally displaced people within Syria. It seems likely that even if a settlement were reached allowing the regime to retain power, a large portion of Syria’s population would choose to remain outside the regime’s area of control.

The long term consequences of this level of killing and displacement for regional stability can’t be known in advance, but when one compares the scale of the refugee population to the numbers displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, 711,000 according to a 1950 UN report, less than a third of the current number of Syrian refugees, then it becomes clear that the consequences could be dire and long-lasting.

Violence in Lebanon and Iraq seems likely to increase in response to any further increase in Iranian power, and the risk of war between Lebanon and Israel seems likely to increase also.

Even within its own borders, the Iranian regime maintains power by means of routine torture and execution. It has periodically faced violent resistance from ethnic minorities within Iran, and is likely to again in future.


In the UK, Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran has been widely welcomed across the Left. The idea of including Iran in a negotiated settlement in Syria also finds favour, from the Labour leadership to elements of the anti-imperialist Left. It might seem odd that a policy enabling an Iranian empire should be so well received, particularly amongst Leftists describing themselves as anti-imperialist, that is until you understand that anti-war means anti-US-war, or anti-UK-war, or anti-you-know-who-war, and that anti-imperialism means only anti-Western-imperialism.

In one example of this anti-West focus, Socialist Worker editor and Stop The War officer Judith Orr, speaking at Saturday’s Stop The War conference, says the anti-war movement is against Western intervention and for Syrian self-determination. That the foreign interventions thwarting the Syrian people’s attempt at self-determination come not from the West, but from Iran and Russia, is studiously ignored.

In another example, Stop The War UK tweeted from their conference that “Jonathan Steele at international #antiwar conference says Syria first time UK public has stopped a war,” as if the UK staying out of a war was the same as no war at all.

A third example, when Owen Jones, writing on why he (commendably) wouldn’t share a platform at the conference with Assad ally Mother Agnes, declared that he was against intervention in Syria, he wrote only of Western intervention.

More on that Mother Agnes story, for any who missed it:

The objections to Mother Agnes were that she promoted a conspiracy theory blaming rebels for the August 21 chemical attack in Ghouta, Damascus, and that she had a previous history of promoting disinformation to shield regime forces from blame for the Houla Massacre of May 25 2012. Journalists have also raised suspicions about her part in the killing of French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier on January 11 2012 in Homs. Since August’s chemical attack, Sister Agnes has been accused of falsely promising safe passage to civilians besieged by regime forces in Moadamiyah only for them to be imprisoned en masse when they left the area under her direction.

See Bob From Brockley’s post a fortnight ago rounding up much of the case against her, and Alex Rowell’s post, also a fortnight ago, anticipating the conversation at the conference.

Following declarations by Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones that they wouldn’t attend the conference if Mother Agnes was attending, she pulled out. In her absence Scahill and Jones were happy to attend, which is odd as there were other Assad apologists and conspiracy theorists still on the bill. As James Bloodworth put it, Stop The War UK have “a long record of lining up alongside any movement or tyranny that is sufficiently anti-Western,” and “Mother Agnes would have fitted in very well.


That the invitation from Stop The War UK to Mother Agnes wasn’t an aberration, but instead a natural consequence of their politics, can be seen from their history.

In October 2004 they issued a notorious statement, attacking  the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, that concluded with a tacit endorsement of Iraqi insurgent tactics of deliberately bombing and shooting civilians, including targeting aid workers, election supervisors, and trade unionists:
The StWC reaffirms its call for an end to the occupation, the return of all British troops in Iraq to this country and recognises once more the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends.
See Normblog here, Labour Friends of Iraq here, and Oliver Kamm here.

The example of George Galloway, a vice president of the Stop The War Coalition since 2001, is perhaps too grotesque and well-known to detail, from his vocal support for Saddam Hussein to his long running engagement on Iran’s propaganda outlet, Press TV. Less familiar to the general public is Kate Hudson of CND, also prominent in the Stop The War Coalition. In 2006 she led CND in taking an extraordinary stance against the International Atomic Energy Agency’s decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council. In 2007 CND gave Iran’s Ambassador Dr Seyed Mohammed Hossein Adeli a platform at their conference where he claimed that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. He also used his appearance at the platform to deny Iran and Hezbollah’s part in killing British soldiers in Iraq. Protesters against Iran’s human rights record of systematic torture, mass executions, and executions of children, were ejected from the conference by CND. To read in detail about Iran’s covert war against Coalition forces in Iraq, see The Shadow Commander,  Dexter Filkins’ September article for The New Yorker.

Sami Ramadani, member of Stop The War’s steering committee, is also an instructive example. Like Mother Agnes he has also resorted to conspiracy theory to explain inconvenient realities, claiming in 2003 that sectarian bombing of Shia pilgrims in Iraq had been carried out by US forces. In 2004 he described Subhi Al Mashadani, survivor of torture in Saddam’s prisons, and General Secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, as a collaborator with the occupation and equivalent to a collaborator with Nazis under the Second World War. For details see Alan Johnson, Labour Friends of Iraq, and also Shiraz Socialist.

In July this year, Sami Ramadani wrote in support of Hezbollah, painting it as a non-sectarian resistance movement established to defend Lebanon in response to Israeli aggression. He presented Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria fighting for Assad as “part of the broad resistance to Israeli occupation and US-backed forces in Syria and the region.” To read about Hezbollah’s roots in the activities of competing Iranian revolutionaries in Lebanon prior to Israel’s 1982 invasion, read Tony Badran. For examples of the sectarianism of the Hezbollah (Party of God) campaign in Syria, see Philip Smyth’s Hizballah Cavalcade here and here.

Another vice president of the Stop The War Coalition, and another conspiracy theorist on Syria, is Kamal Majid. At one of their meetings in May this year he claimedAmerican special forces were active inside Syria before a single protest was held in early 2011 – the whole thing was started by the Americans.” And at an earlier meeting in May 2012 organised by New Worker, he claimed even more bizarrely that “the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are now spreading terror and sectarian division across Syria, as part of the imperialist plan to replace the Syrian government with a puppet state, à la Libya, which will do the bidding of the Americans and Zionists.” And he went on to say that Al Qaeda earlier worked as an ally of the US to break up Yugoslavia!

Mercy.

To get a more clear-headed view of Stop The War UK’s thinking, read the words of John Rees, at the centre of Stop The War from the start. After meeting members of the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, The Mahdi Army, in September 2004 in Beirut, he saidI don’t propose to lecture the Iraqi people on the methods they use, and neither should we.

Here’s a speech by John Rees from 2007, making clear that no matter how horrendous a regime may be, Stop The War will support them in any conflict with the US or UK. His exact words were, “that no matter what the character of the weaker power and the weaker regime which the United States and its allies attempt to bully, invade, occupy, and attack, that the main enemy, especially for those of us who live in those imperial powers, is the government of the United States and of Britain.

He continues in the same speech with an account of a meeting he had with Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon, Hezbollah, then best known for fighting Israel, now more busy fighting in Syria to keep Assad in power.

.. I’ll retell it to you just as it happened, from my discussions with Ali Fayyad, who is the international director of Hezbollah, and from my discussions with the international director of Lebanese Communist Party, who formed an alliance to repel the invasion by Israel last summer. We had a discussion at the Cairo conference, and some people said “wouldn’t it be better if the demonstrations in London or the demonstrations in the United States just had the slogan ‘Victory to the Resistance’?” [Scattered applause]
Well you say that, but Ali Fayyad from Hezbollah, and from the Lebanese CP,  the international director of the Lebanese CP, do not say that. They say this – they say, “Rather than 5,000 solely anti-imperialist demonstrators in London, we want to see the anti-imperialist demonstration on the street with hundreds of thousands of others to whom they can put the argument and to whom they can explain what happened here with the Resistance.” They want us to be amongst them because they know that we can better cripple the government here with 100,000 people marching than with 5,000 committed people to the Resistance marching.
John Rees reiterated this strategy for maximising support by downplaying Stop The War’s alliance with the Resistance, AKA Hezbollah and its allies, at a 2009 meeting hosted by the Quakers at Friends House, London. The guest of honour was Hussein el-Hajj Hassan, a Lebanese MP and member of Hezbollah. In his speech, John Rees made clear his own allegiance, saying “I personally am a supporter of the Resistance,” and also made clear that Hezbollah and Stop The War coalition were allies in the same movement.

We have a very, very, simple approach here. We do not require that people who join our demonstrations, or are supporters of the Stop the War Coalition, are supporters of the Resistance in the Middle East, and nobody I’ve ever talked to in the Middle East in the Resistance has ever thought that this was a good idea. The very simple reason is that if you want a hundred thousand or a hundred and fifty thousand people on the streets of Britain, what you want is everybody who for whatever reason is opposed to the war. If they’re Quakers and pacifists like the people who run this Hall, you want them on that demonstration. If they are people who have very severe criticisms and would not support the Resistance, you want them on that demonstration, and that has been our policy from the very beginning. 
But it has also been our policy that the Resistance is a legitimate part of the movement. They are part of the movement in the Middle East, they are a central part of the movement in the Middle East, and it’s not surprising really that if you’re under military occupation that one of the forms of resistance is a military resistance.

Today as Hezbollah joins with other Iranian armed forces to support the Assad regime in Syria, there is no reason to doubt that the Stop The War Coalition remain their allies.

Follow up post here.

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