Syria- The Conundrum of Defining Terrorism

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem’s speech during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. accused some security council members- France, UK and the US- of supporting “terrorism” in the country.  The rebels fighting with the Free Syrian Army on the other hand areissuing a dire warning that as the opposition continues it has reached this point, with limited or no Western support, only by losing segments of the Syrian population to radicalization.  That in essence is a double edge sword- terrorism as currently defined and presented by the United States put our foreign policy in a sticky situation.  By supporting the Syrian rebels the US is in essence coming in conflict with its definition of terrorism, by taking a back step, Americans are loosing key future support in a region riddled with enemies and ill will, potentially radicalizing a new generation of Syrians.

In defining terrorism the United States has not been able to fully protect itself or its national interests, thereby opening itself up to accusations that the US is in essence supporting terrorism, and thereby becoming a state sponsor of terrorism.  Moallem says

“This terrorism, which is externally supported, is accompanied by unprecedented media provocation based on igniting religious extremism sponsored by well-known states in the region that facilitate the flow of arms, money and fighters through the borders of some neighbouring countries.”

The key words in that statement are its connection of “terrorism” to “religious extremism”.  The US has on the one hand tried to cast the “War on Terrorism” as not being a war on Islam, however, its actions have constantly overstepped that subtle distinction.  I can see in that Syria’s use is in essence trying to get its partners- China and Russia- to take a stronger stance against the US and its allies.  Call out our shit, sort of speaking.  The problem though is there is no consensus on the legal definition of “terrorism” internationally.

The former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, criticized the UN, “The conclusion you have to draw from the record on terrorism, where the Security Council creates a committee on terrorism but can’t even agree on a definition of what terrorism is…is that its not going to be effective in those areas.”  Yet the US itself has varying definitions within the government.

The United States Code (USC) Title 22, Chapter 38 requires the Secretary of State submit a required annual report on how countries are combating terrorism, where the definition of the term terrorism means

“…premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;”

Title 18 of the USC  which deals with criminal acts and criminal procedure defines terrorism as:

“activities that . . . involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that… appear to be intended . . . to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; . . . to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or . . . to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

The Untied States Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 28, Section 0.85, defines terrorism as:

 “…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”

The US Security policy defined terrorism, not excluding the actions of the US government, as “premeditated, politically motivated violence against innocents”, only later qualifying it the definition with “premeditated, politically motivated violence against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

The Department of Defense defines it as “the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.”

And the National Counterterrorism Center defines it as “…premeditated; perpetrated by a sub-national or clandestine agent; politically motivated, potentially including religious, philosophical, or culturally symbolic motivations; violent; and perpetrated against a noncombatant target.”

All of those definitions place the US in an awkward situation where we have to ask ourselves:  Is supporting the Free Syrian Army a form of state sponsored terrorism?

Ridiculously photogenic guy fighting with the Free Syrian Army

Unfortunately the US itself has stubbornly stood in the way of making a distinction for “legitimate struggles for national liberty and self-detrmination by people” as opposed to “general” politically motivated acts of terror.  One mans (armed) struggle for freedom is, for the US a clear  act of terrorism, for which any aid or work done in furtherance of such actions are state sponsorship of terrorism.  Which is where we find ourselves entrapped by Syrian Ambassador’s accusation laid at our doorsteps.  Will there be international prosecution? I doubt it, but given the ground developments and this conundrum, the US has to find a means to untangle itself quickly.  That I believe is a fast and speedy win by the rebels.  The continuation of the fighting on ground for another six months or more, is not going to make the situation any easier for crafting a foreign policy that doesn’t put us further at odds with our working definitions of terrorism.

On the flip side of the coin, the Free Syria Army is using America’s fear- the boogeyman sort of- of radicalization and the spread of Al Qaeda influence in the region to corner US officials to ramp up their support of the rebels.  The United States ultimate boogeyman may not work however.  Given the events in Libyan on Sept. 11, 2012 in Bengazi, the reality of radical armed extremism co-opting or strong arming weak transitionary revolutionary governments has been realized and that is the real nightmare policy makers wake up having in Washington DC.  During the US led efforts to oust Qaddafi, this was done with the real fear that those fighting Qaddafi (elements) were in fact radicalized extremists.  The US may make the calculated conclusion that its not worth the political headache to continue to support the FSA and rebels if there are radicalized elements within, that it maybe better for Assad and company wipe clean the opposition and return to the status quo.

At the end of the day the question should be, appropriately Hollywood-esque-American-way- do you want to support a guy that looks like the Syrian Foreign Minister or the R-P-G carrying an R.P.G. over his shoulder while leisurely walking down the street as bombs are exploding behind him and everyone else is running for cover?

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