The protesters all gathered at Temple tube station in Central London at midday. The weather was warm and, uniquely for a demo, everyone seemed pleased. After all, MPs had voted against David Cameron’s bid for military strikes in Syria earlier that week. This time, the protest was against the planned US intervention in the Middle East country, with organisers claiming that any ‘attack’ on President Assad’s forces in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people would only fuel the conflict in Syria.
The protesters, over a thousand strong, carried banners and Syrian flags, chanting “US, shame on you” and “hands off Syria”. All around, the face of David Cameron could be seen on placards that read “No Cuts He’s Got to Go”. The Stop The War Coalition insisted there was a groundswell of public anger similar to that which preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which saw 3,000 protest marches in cities all over the world – around a million alone attended in London. This time, though, the numbers in the protest were far lower.
Yet again world powers were split between action and inaction, but among the demonstrators, there was a universal sense that victory had been won – unlike the protest back in 2003. “I’ve been coming to anti-war demos since the demo in 2003,” one protester said, “and I think it’s paid off, because now we aren’t going to bomb the hell out of Syria.” The feeling amongst many of the demonstrators was that the last thing we needed was another ruinously expensive war, and it’s already being estimated that potential American military intervention will cost US taxpayers billions.
The march snaked from Temple down the Embankment and towards Big Ben and Whitehall, where the press were waiting. I walked with the march all the way to Trafalgar Square where a rally was in fully swing. Veteran peace protesters spoke to the crowd about how constituted a victory for democracy and how the last thing an Iraq-weary public wanted was another military intervention.
“Today is a victory of British public opinion over those who want war,” declared former Labour MP Tony Benn to the gathered crowd. “The vote in Parliament last week was a result of all the demonstrations, like the one we had today, against war and in favour of peace.”
“Chemical weapons are terrible weapons, but when you think of the people that have been killed by British and American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, you realise that it isn’t true that another war would solve the problem.”
After the peaceful demonstration was all but over, I walked into a nearby bar and watched President Obama give a speech on television. Obama was adamant that the war in Syria needed to be dealt with fast and that it was still important to launch missiles to stop the Assad regime.
One man stood at the bar, waving his fist in the air. “Obama, you’re getting your hands tied behind your back by the Bohemian Grove mob!” he shouted. (FYI, the Bohemian Grove is a secretive two-week summit in California where the rich and powerful gather to relax and network. Think summer camp for the global elite.)
Although Saturday confirmed a victory for peace camps all over the world, this issue was never going to die easy. By Monday, more footage of children dying of nerve agent poisoning hit YouTube. William Hague, the foreign secretary, was busy using Twitter to get his point across. “One year ago: 230,000 Syrian refugees,” he wrote. “Today: 2,000,000. 1/2 children. If we don’t end the conflict, think what the figure could be next year.” Gove even dropped a retweet from Angelina Jolie herself: “The world risks being dangerously complacent about the Syrian disaster.”
We are living in strange times yet again. Assad versus the rebels; poison gas versus international action – who do we believe in, and what do we believe? There’s no sitting on the fence anymore. Only time will tell whether we get caught up in yet another expensive multi-billion pound war funded by the British taxpayer, which will make the nation even more miserable and tragically fragmented. Now, the United Nations is stating that the refugee crisis in Syria marks the worst humanitarian crisis in over 20 years and Israel is now testing its missile defences over the Mediterranean Sea… Which side are you on?
Follow Stuart Griffiths on Twitter here @PlanetGriff