Syria: the Misnomer of 'Combating Terrorism'

Lakhdar Brahimi, joint special representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, at a press conference during the second round of the Geneva Conference on Syria, on Feb. 11. (Photo: U.N., Jean-Marc Ferré)

"Syria presents a number of challenges to U.S. national security interests in terms of the potential spillover of the fighting inside of Syria to neighboring countries, but also, and increasingly so, concerns on the terrorism front," CIA Director John Brennan told lawmakers recently before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.

How often has "terrorism"—possibly the most politically and emotionally charged term in human language today—been applied to justify warfare in the Middle East? From Israel to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Territories or Lebanon, one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. One man's leader fighting for "security" is another's dictator or oppressor. The murky world of terrorism and how we have addressed it over the decades has rendered entire populations terrorized in the Middle East.

Under the banner of "combating terrorism," countless billions in military hardware have poured into the Middle East by foreign governments. Indeed, Russia is now backing Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, head of the Egyptian armed forces, as Egypt's next president because the fall of so many military dictators in the Middle East has robbed Moscow of billions in lost arms contracts.

It's not just the hardware. Military training of all and sundry in the Middle East to "combat terrorism" has been standard procedure by Western governments. Has it proven to be the means to effect progressive democracy throughout the region? Doesn't look like it. Today, the complexity of fighting forces in the Middle East is astonishing, with Syria now a hot bed for the lot.

"We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad," said Brennan. National Intelligence Director James Clapper added that the biggest threat stems from "the 7,500 or so foreign fighters from some 50 countries who have gravitated to Syria. Among them is a small group of Af-Pak al Qaeda veterans who have aspirations for external attack, in Europe if not the homeland." No surprise then that British officials are on the same page, believing British extremists and their European counterparts are colluding in joint training camps in northern Syria.

Is it any surprise when the strategies and diplomacy used to deal with the Syrian civil war are subject to the same old lines of combating terrorism with military hardware, fighting forces and military training of locals? Training people to combat terrorism seems to skill them in one form or another for terrorism. There's a dynamic to terrorism that lends itself to a misnomer that can have application by one and all. As The New York Times notes, at the latest talks in Geneva, the Syrian government made clear that is considers all opposition coalition members, including civilians with which it is negotiating, terrorists.

Well, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has always blamed "terrorists" for the fighting in Syria, and consistently labels anyone aligned with Syria's opposition groups as terrorists. But of course, a core reason for the uprising against his regime in the first place has been to overcome the oppression and "terrorism" the Assad regime has rained down upon the Syrian citizens.

In speaking of the effort to form a transitional governing body, Nora Al-Ameer, vice president of the Syrian Coalition referred to that effort as "the primary key and the first term that must be applied to combat terrorism" at the Geneva negotiations. She added, "The terrorism that we seek to eliminate is the one that was created and nourished by Assad, who oversaw the creation of ISIS in their security branches and opened the door wide [for the] terrorist militias of Hezbollah and Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas' sectarian militias." 

Fighting terrorism, from whichever direction, doesn't seem to form a solid basis for building progressive political stability in the Middle East. Israel seems pretty clear on that score. Besides, what state can exist in political isolation in the 21st century? Neither the regional nor international political arenas have been able to resolve Syria's civil war. Nor have Syria's closest allies, Russia and Iran. When dealing with Middle Eastern turmoil and political change, a more cohesive international platform could be vital for any form of political stability to take hold in Syria.

The United Nations has no definition for terrorism

"Moscow is trying to exploit Washington's retreat from the Middle East in general, and Egypt's in particular, and to reassert its influence in the region," reported The Times last week. While Russia has closer geopolitical relevance to the region than the Americas, how does that augur for less warfare there? Without regulation of U.S. and Russian arms industries, is less warfare realistic? Both the United States and Russia have massive defense industries behind their economies, and it always seems it is the Middle East that suffers the consequences. As the world's second-largest arms exporter, Russia has more than 1,300 defense firms. Meanwhile, the U.S. homeland security market is expected to reach $65.3 billion by 2018. These mighty military forces seem to foreclose on any across-the-board defense regulation. Streamlining U.N. guidelines on human rights and in fact what constitutes terrorism seems impossible while so much military apparel keeps pouring into the Middle East for strategic superpower leverage. One way or another, the discordant political and military power of Russia and the United States could be hindering global stability.

With last century's Cold War ostensibly over, key differences remain between global superpowers on defense regulation, human rights and terrorism. The United Nations, in particular its Security Council, continually proves incapable of resolving issues of warfare in the Middle East. Resolutions are bickered over. Completed resolutions are ineffective. And when push comes to shove, the pen does not prove mightier than the sword. The schisms in the U.N. Security Council and the failure of the latest Geneva talks on Syria all involve the quandary of "combating terrorism."

"I apologise to the Syrian people. ... I apologise to them that in these two rounds we haven't helped them very much," U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said in Geneva last week. Needless to say, front and center on the list for future talks is combating terrorism. Who is arming whom to combat it? Who can say who the terrorists are?

"Facts confirming an increasing number of threats from an increasing number of terrorist groups are well known," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. "We are very concerned by them. That's why we presented to the Security Council—or in this particular case we've just started consultations—one more draft resolution on fighting terrorism in Syria."

Again, for all intents and purposes, combating terrorism could be enflaming the dynamic of terrorism. The term terrorism seems to provide the bête noire for any military incursion. Every fighting force in Syria, for example, says they have just cause and points the finger—well, the gun—at the others. It is no wonder that the United Nations has no internationally agreed-upon definition of terrorism. Even one of the most hallowed human beings of our time, Nelson Mandela, has been labeled a terrorist. According to the Strategic Studies Institute, there are more than 100 definitions for the term. This problem surely must affect meetings of the U.N. Security Council on dealing with Middle Eastern conflicts. At the very least, the definitional impasse has prevented the adoption of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.N. failed to adopt the Convention for this reason. The deadlock continues to this day.

Iran and the geopolitical framework of the Middle East

"Too bad Iran is not present at the conference. Its presence is necessary in every sense," Russian Arabist and Islamic scholar Pavel Gusterin told the Russian newspaper Pravda recently. "Iran has close direct contacts with the government of Bashar al-Assad, and these contacts exist to provide assistance in the fight against international terrorism," he added. Pravda also notes that Nina Mamedova of the Iranian Institute of Oriental Studies believes the withdrawal of Iran marked a defeat of Russian, Iranian and U.N. diplomacy.

"I think this is a failure in diplomacy, because one should have coordinated every little detail of Iran's presence at the conference. The fact that Iran was suspended from the conference means a failure in the diplomatic mission of the United Nations, as well as a loss for the entire system of negotiations on Syria. This is also a big blow for the Russian and Iranian diplomacy that made everything possible to have Iran at the conference, because the country plays a significant role in Syria," she said.

Interestingly, it was Iran—constantly condemned by the West for being Bashar-al Assad's supporting ally—who proposed the election of a new president, as the most legitimate way out of the situation. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to find a realistic solution for this major problem in the region that has posed great dangers to the region," Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign affairs minister, said at a joint press conference with U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi last Saturday.

"You don't have a counter-terrorism strategy. You don't have an Iran containment strategy," said Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution. "Syria is also the issue in the region that all of the other states are responding to and allying on the basis of, so if you don't have a Syria strategy, you really don't have a Middle East strategy."

Classifying Iran as a terrorist state has hardly led to a resolution of Syria's conflicts. The application of any counter-terrorism strategy devoid of a clear and common understanding of what constitutes terrorism by all states of the state system may not only be futile but dangerous.

As Private Varnado Simpson, a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, once said, "Who is the enemy? How can you distinguish between the civilians and the non-civilians? The same people who come and work in the bases in the daytime, they just want to shoot and kill you at night. So how can you distinguish between the two—the good and the bad? All of them look the same."

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