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What constitutes terrorism in Syria?

Western governments no longer maintain the exclusive right to define who’s a terrorist

December 2, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Nov. 14, a day after coordinated attacks claimed 130 lives in Paris, leaders of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) — 17 countries and representatives from the United Nations, European Union and Arab League — convened in Vienna to discuss the ongoing war in Syria. Among other things, the ISSG is seeking an agreement on a timeline toward a political solution, which would include a cease-fire, free and fair elections and the drafting of a constitution. The group also wishes to determine whether any agreement can be reached on which parties fighting in Syria should be considered terrorists. 

Participants reiterated that groups already designated as terrorists by the U.N. Security Council “must be defeated.” Jordan agreed to develop “a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists,” according to the group’s statement. ISSG delegates hope to arrive at a collective understanding of what constitutes terrorism and a unified list of terrorist organizations fighting in Syria.

After more than a decade of dominance in academic and policy circles, the terrorism discourse may soon reach its high-water mark in the ISSG deliberations, as world powers begin negotiating who exactly is a terrorist. It is a process that in and of itself signifies the emptiness and political flexibility of the term. After the Paris attacks, a suicide bombing in Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula — for which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility — the ISSG agreed to continued airstrikes against ISIL and its Al-Qaeda affiliated rival, Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front). But that’s the easy part.

On the question of who is a terrorist, there are vast differences among the ISSG participants, which include the United States, Russia, Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. For example, Turkey has accused the West of backing Kurdish terrorists in Syria and has recently attacked Kurdish positions there. The Iran-affiliated Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, which has sent recruits to fight Sunni rebels in support of the Syrian government, appears on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. It’s unlikely that the ISSG would agree to designate Hezbollah — which is also active in supporting the Syrian regime — as a terrorist organization or take any collective action to eradicate its influence in Syria.

Arab monarchies and their Western allies no longer have the exclusive right to define who’s a terrorist, as has long been the case in their own countries.

Meanwhile, Russia has vowed to defeat all terrorists in Syria, and it has been bombing rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime, including the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. Russian President Vladimir Putin has scoffed at the absurdity of attempting to distinguish among terrorists. In response to Russia’s air campaign, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have stepped up arming anti-Assad forces.

As Patrick Goodenough, the international editor for CNS News, pointed out earlier this month, “looming disputes over which groups in Syria are terrorists and thus targetable reflect broader differences in the international community that for decades have prevented the U.N. from reaching a common definition for terrorism.”

The selective application of the terrorist label is nothing new. Its amorphous nature and blanket use to justify arrests and imprisonments of domestic opponents and external enemies is well documented. Perhaps most notably, China capitalized on the post-9/11 “war on terrorism” discourse and stepped up its campaign to repress Uighur opponents in the autonomous Xinjiang province. Nearly 15 years later, the campaign has been met with questionable results. China’s counterextremism campaign continues to serve as the justification for the suppression and economic marginalization of Xinjiang’s Muslims and scores of arrests and trials.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, responses to the Arab Spring protests and grass-roots democratic movements have led to the arrests of journalists and human rights defenders for being terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations. Earlier this year, a Turkish court charged journalists from Vice with abetting terrorism. Human rights activists in Bahrain were stripped of their citizenship under the country’s anti-terrorism laws. Most countries today, from Malaysia to Jordan to Canada, have sweeping anti-terrorism laws that have significantly eroded civil liberties and threatened human rights.

The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are all funding, arming, training or giving aerial support to proxy groups or allies in Syria. As ISSG participants, they must now face one another’s propaganda and the rhetoric of naming and shaming terrorists head-on, including groups they support. They no longer have the exclusive right to define who’s a terrorist, as has long been the case in their own countries.

As the conflict in Syria rolls on, so too does to the discussion among world powers on what constitutes terrorism in Syria’s context, crystallizing in such a way as to make the term devoid of any discernible meaning except for the party that is using it.

Kevin Schwartz is a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy. His writings have appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Baltimore Sun, Jadaliyya and other publications. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or the U.S. Naval Academy. His website is www.kevinschwartz.org.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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