This is the full version of an article I wrote for the blog site of a local diversity group –
When I was asked to write this article on the local reaction to the airstrikes and the general Syria situation by the organisers of the Sunrise blog, I was both very honoured and a little apprehensive. The subject matter is obviously emotive, no matter what position you take in the discussion. Refugees, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Assad’s rule, western interventionism, Syrian militant Peoples Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) fighting ISIS, Syria’s drought and all other aspects of this situation seem a mess of unimaginable proportions. It is highly complex and because of this confusing.
It seems impossible to me for anyone reading this not to know about Britain’s history as a colonial force; we’ve all heard the phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire” at the very least. We’ve made our historical collective mark on the world, so there are bound to be after effects. This is not just a historical thing though as, in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, between France and Britain’s activities, there are very real events with effects within living human memory . Our political activities within the last century even go as far plans for assassination attempts on previous Syrian leaders, in attempts to undermine their political autonomy (hardly shocking anymore, the tactics of despots) . A contemporary example, today Britain is employing mercenaries from Sierra Leone, who were child soldiers . How can anyone deny that we have an active role in the situation at hand, when we prove daily that we are still profiteering from colonialism?
I first became interested in politics when I started learning about what it meant to be from a Polish Jewish family, who had to flee as political refugees to escape the communists. My great grandparents fled to Palestine, where they were taken in and my grandfather was born. After that they moved to South Africa where my grandfather grew up (and joined anti-apartheid protests in his teens). Learning about this family history sparked my interest in politics, world affairs and has resulted in issues like the current situation regarding Syria being ones that are emotive to me.
The day after the vote to bomb Syria was announced I went out onto Barnstaple high street with a cardboard sign, saying “our MP just voted to murder brown people for oil and money” and just stood for a few hours. I had people voice praise, avoid looking at me, call me a cunt and tell me to get a job, and, what was weirdest, someone wrote a blog post about what I was doing, which got over 200 Facebook shares . It was really bizarre (and a little nerve wracking). People I’d never met voicing love and support, as well as hate and rejection. People who came to talk to me voiced positions on all elements on the situation, which was at points overwhelming.
What seemed abundantly clear on that day was that, there was no consensus on what was the right thing to do. Really though, how could there be? Drought brought on by man-made climate change ; the rise of the terror of ISIS out of the mess that has been the war on terror ; hundred of thousands of refugees needing to be resettled. It is quite obviously a hugely confusing situation.
A group that some friends and I started, North Devon Solidarity Network, organised (and are still organising) a series of local demonstrations on Barnstaple high street after that. We knew that there was nothing we could do to physically stop the airstrikes, so we organised these intentionally as symbolic gestures, designed to encourage a culture of resistance. At our Food Not Bomb’s style event Drop Doughnuts Not Bombs in particular, we had a really great response (everyone loves a doughnut) and heard some really amazing people speak – one woman told us about her experiences as a refugee during WW2 and it was so moving, particularly when she identified that it’s exactly the same thing as the children traveling from Syria (they are fleeing from bombs).
We’ve tried be something different to the general activist presence within the region, which doesn’t appear to make an impact on the generally conservative, right of centre to far right political culture. When describing this presence, a friend of mine who has previously been involved with these groups and now is active in other parts of the country had this to say – “self-stifled, that’s what my experience of the local left has been, trapped between the cultural imagery/discourse of Soviet Russia and an unwillingness to see past a vulgar Marxism. That is not to say, however, that their hearts are not looking for the right things – certainly motivation and desire is not something they lack”. This rings true with me and seems to be the general perception of this presence, so we approached our demos with the general desire to be something different than this.
On one of the demos where it was a group of us with signs, while people told us that we were twats and told the 2 year 10 school girls who had come to join us that Britain should bomb children, there were people like this beautifully gentle elderly man who came to speak to us (I can’t remember his name, so I’ll call him John). I’m not going to lie, when I saw John I wondered if he was ok out on his own, as he had the appearance of one of those gnarled old trees that the wind has shaped into some contortion that looked as if it was going to collapse on-top of itself. He moved and spoke so gently and tenderly; I was quite concerned. When I heard what he was saying, it became clear that John was far more than his appearance portrays. He told us of how he’d travelled and seen right across this world. He told us how he’d seen so many different people and different types of people. He told us how he could never understand how people could want to hurt each other. He said to us that he’s a person and that we’re all people, that those who wage war are all people and that those who are affected by war are all people. I instantly fell in love with John and thanked him profusely for sharing his story and his feelings. My inner monologue went something along the lines of “if this guy is approving of what we’re doing, we’ve got to be doing something right”, as John was quite clearly someone who knew the world and has a deep understanding. My love of him might be heightened by the fact that at no point was I not worried that he was going to collapse or something and that he looked like he was probably the oldest person I’d ever met (even older than my 97 year old great grandmother), but out of the experience of these demos and the interactions with all the people who have expressed themselves (positively or negatively), meeting him is a memory I will treasure.
One of the things that seems to miss a lot of the discussion, is the degree to which Britain profiteers from conflicts like this one  and is selling arms to those who could worsen this already drastically awful situation, Saudi Arabia . Turkey is fast becoming a fascist state  and they could very easily turn this situation, along side Saudi Arabia, into WW3. That is if we are not already in WW3, as the global situation is looking more and more like that is the case . I’m reminded of the woman at the Drop Doughnuts Not Bombs telling us about her experiences as a child refugee and wondering what the future holds. What will I tell my children about this time in history? What will I say we did? What will I tell them I did?
A friend of mine, who I went to school with in North Devon, said this to me – “My parents were refugees. I’ve been lucky not to grow up in a war-torn country, kissing my parents goodnight, unsure whether or not we’ll still be around the next day. To see this country I’m now a citizen of – to see it ignore the disasters of previous military intervention in the Middle East, and to go ahead with its air-strikes – is a tragedy. To see a government regard civilians as not people, but ‘collateral damage’, is a tragedy. Where is the peace plan? Who is going to break the cycle?”. This friend is one of the most insightful people I know, particularly from those a similar age to myself. What she is saying is something very true
At this point in time 1/3 Iraqi people believe that the US is supporting ISIS . This is predominantly down to video material of American soldiers helping ISIS fighters. I wonder how many people in North Devon think similarly. It is difficult to tell. Clearly there are many who would find this preposterous, many who would find it likely and many who would not know where they stood. This lack of certainty and definite position seems to be the resounding message, from all I’ve witnessed.
You know who seemed to have a definite position? Our MP. In his pre-vote statement he seemed to have made up his mind . No surprise then when he followed through and voted yes to the airstrikes .
I don’t have any survey data to prove that there is the lack of consensus that I am presenting. I can only tell you that this is my experience from all of my involvement in the local response. With that, it seems to me that if what we have is a representative democracy, where MP’s represent our voices, then our MP should have voiced this lack of consensus. Instead what he has done is voted a position – his position.
One part of the local response that has been really cool is the Survival Bags, Home and Away shop . This is a local effort to actively do something, in a community driven sense, that supports not only those displaced by this conflict, but those who are most vulnerable “at home”. The people who run it have been massive supporters of NDSN and our events. They’re doing fantastic work that is so valuable.
There are two definite things about the local perception that seem necessary to cover at this point –
Firstly: many people seem to think this is a conflict over religion or about religion. This is a very false idea and the reason is very simple. For this to be about religion would require ISIS to actually be about Islam and be supporting Muslims. What is actually the case is that ISIS’s activities are not allowed under Islamic doctrine  and that ISIS harms people who are Muslim more than any other . To say that ISIS are Islamic is ridiculous to the extreme. Islam is a religion whose numbers spread across the globe and far exceed the tiny percentage of those who are members of ISIS, or groups like them. This seems to be one of the factors that needs to be addressed in the local discussion and the truth realised.
Secondly: people who support the airstrikes seem to be under the belief that if you don’t support the bombings you don’t want to do anything about ISIS. This is also not the case. It’s about how ISIS is opposed and why. Rather than bombardment and profiteering, there seems another approach – resistance culture. YPG and YPJ, the armed forces of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (a revolutionary social project based in anarchist social ecology), as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga (the military forces of the autonomous Kurdish region) have long since proven themselves an extremely effective means of resisting and stopping ISIS . The Kurdish Supreme Committee are managing to do it within an anarchist, feminist, environmentally conscious new form of social organisation, that is actively democratic and egalitarian. Supporting them seems a far better means of resisting ISIS and creating a culture that can survive in the years to come. (It is note worthy that Turkey actively wants to undermine their efforts and destroy this society, but I shan’t cover this anymore as it is not the focus of the topic). As for Peshmerga, they have a long history of being a military force to be reckoned with and are fighting for Kurdish self-determinism .
To bring this to a finish, the resounding feeling seems to be a mixture of confusion and a split; we seem unsure and divided on this. Is this an inevitable byproduct of a confused situation? Perhaps. What do we do as a community? Almost certainly it seems a good idea to support the survival bag shop, as a means of helping those displaced by this horrific situation. If we oppose the airstrikes, how do we resist (symbolically or otherwise)? If we think that they are a good thing, what would you say to those of us who are attempting to fulfil the position of an active local opposition? Do we take this situation as probably the first global warming induced refugee crisis and as a clear indication that we are on the verge of an extremely unsettled situation, and if so how do we resolve this situation? What? How? Who? Why? There is so much to consider. The people I speak about this with and I generally have this resounding position that to not do anything is not something we are willing to do. Personally I think back to my great grandparents, my grandfather, their homes in Poland as Jews and wonder if, when I’m a grandparent, if I’ll be telling my grandchildren about this time like how I was told about Jewish people during the 1920 and through to the end of WW2. I’m remembering that my grandfather was born safely in Palestine, with his parents being Jewish refugees. I think the thing though that is most important is to remember John’s point. We’re all people and the idea of hurting others should be something that we don’t understand.
I always like a good quote, so I’m to leave you with this quote from my political heroine Emma Goldman, which I think is as true today as it was when she first wrote it – “So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe”.
Thank you for reading this.