Confining and Defining Terrorism in Syria

Syrian refugees in Turkey (Muftah.org)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared Syria a “terrorist state” while the country has hosted a crush of refugees fleeing regime persecution across the two countries’ shared 556-mile border.

Turkey is a powerful and influential country in a volatile region, and this sounds like tough rhetoric regarding an intransigent and repressive neighbor. For many observers, this was precisely the kind of language needed to pressure the regime of Bashar al-Assad to change course or relinquish control to the opposition and end the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, there is a stream of thought that firmly believes that “terrorism is terrorism” whether committed by state or non-state actors. The notion of equivalence focuses on the victims — usually civilians — and the particular horror inflicted by armed violence.  The United States (and its allies) are regularly if frivilously accused of “terrorism” by those on the left. More sophisticated commentators, such as my fellow observer at Foreign Policy Remi Brulin, apply a post-modern argument to the application of “terrorism”. In essence, he argues that “terrorism” has been entirely stripped of any real or intrinsic meaning and therefore serves almost entirely as a political weapon: label your enemy as a “terrorist,” and you win.  (This is most easily seen by Assad’s regime, who regularly blames state massacres on “terrorists”.)

I am entirely unsympathetic to this argument because it does not reflect the real world, nor is this the world we want to live in. We want to live in a world where violence does not solve our political conflicts. Even when force is required or necessary, we want force to be controlled by the rule of law of states.  To throw up our hands under the belief that anyone or any thing can be a terrorist ignores reality, international law, and state law.

Terrorism, as defined by U.S. law, confines the crime to an individual committing acts of violence in order to change policy. It is important to note, of course, that terrorism is limited to the individual and its political component: terrorism is a political crime. But that is why terrorism is and should be seriously condemned. Particularly in a democracy, the means for political change are readily available to the individual. Violence for the purpose of political change is not acceptable.  (I admit I was annoyed that the “War on Terror” never was articulated in clear moral terms, as antithetical to democracy and the international state system.)

We may have an honest difference of opinion and ideals when it comes to the appropriate and legitimate use of force for political change at the state level.  But this is where I believe the equivalence of state and individual terrorism is both false and unhelpful.  Because both state and international law provide a cause of action for the inappropriate and illegitimate use of force.  War crimes, aggression, crimes against humanity, rape and genocide are each a cause of action in international law.  For the individual — mostly murder, assault, rape and other similar crimes — are all punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the criminal and military codes of states.  It is entirely appropriate to label these crimes as such when they arise: labeling a state a terrorist or an individual unaffiliated with a state a war criminal is not just confusing, it is simply bad law.

It is true that terrorism has not been specifically defined under international law (certain arguments notwithstanding) and that does have much to do with the political wranglings that Brulin discusses (the canard that one country’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter,” etc.). But this illuminates the fuzziness of Erdogan’s statement about Syria.  A “terrorist state,” under current law — state and international — is no terrorist at all. Erdogan’s characterization, while sharp, invokes no cause of action under international or Turkish law and demands nothing of Erdogan, his neighbors or his allies. It changes nothing.

This is important for reasons I have outlined before: international law is entirely dependent on the political will of the international community for enforcement actions.  Had Erdogan accused the Assad regime of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, he would have invoked the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.  This would have put the UN Security Council on the hook to enforce the ICC founding statute. Turkey’s political capital is substantial, but not substantial enough under these circumstances in effect to bring the UN to the brink of war in Syria. (And Assad is not so stupid as to attack outright Turkey, a NATO ally that can invoke the collective defensive provisions that would bring down the might of the Western democracies that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.)

In short, this argument demonstrates the importance of a precise and legal definition of terrorism — and a precise and legal discussion of terrorism.  We could all agree and nod sagely and cynically with Remi Brulin and his postmodern compatriots that Erdogan called a spade a Kalashnikov, but it does absolutely nothing to change the situation for tens of thousands of refugees, the Free Syrian Army, or the millions of average Syrians caught between a brutal and repressive state and the opposition trying desperately to change the country.  Only the actions of states and individuals — by law, ideals or interest — will bring that about.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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