Those fighting terrorism should also define their aims
It is hard to look at pictures from the March 11th car bombings near Damascus’s Sayyida Zeinab shrine without seeing the work of “terrorists”. This is what the official Syrian news agency called them, as it regularly calls rebel forces.
The Russian-led peace process, beginning in Astana in January and necognised by the United Nations, excludes “terrorists” — meaning the Islamic State (ISIS), Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the last at Turkey’s behest. Hence representatives of most non-government fighters were not in Astana.
The word “terrorist” spread in 19th-century Europe but became prominent with the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon. After nearly 16 years, the United States is no nearer to victory in its war on terror.
This has not stopped others trying. The Syrian regime is not alone. Iran confronts terrorism not just in its Baluchi south-east, where militants have links to al-Qaeda but with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, which accepts provisions of the Geneva Conventions and has consultative status in the Socialist International.
Russia has fought terrorism not just in Syria but in Chechnya. A Saudi-led coalition faces Houthi terrorists in Yemen. Shortly after Israel’s 2014 Gaza onslaught, when, said the United Nations, 65% of more than 2,000 fatalities were Palestinian civilians, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proclaimed a “new war” against “Islamist terrorists who take entire communities, cities, populations, hostage”.
But no one conducts a war on terror like Washington. The US State Department lists 61 “foreign terrorist organisations”, while the US Treasury designates more than 14,000 organisations and individuals, not all on “terrorism” grounds.
Like the situation at Guantanamo prison, these designations sidestep normal legal frameworks. “Terrorists” cannot appeal; their lawyers face no evidence. Kassim Tajideen, a Lebanese businessman listed since 2006 as a Hezbollah financier, told me he has lost $8million-$10 million through frozen assets and in legal and accountancy fees engaging with the US Treasury to “clear my name” (his phrase).
The problem is twofold: “Terrorism” has never been convincingly defined and therefore has no effective laws surrounding it. The US legal code refers to “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State” and that “are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to “influence… a government by intimidation or coercion”.
Defining terrorism as terrorising civilians does not work. The British and US bombing of Hamburg and Dresden in 1945 was designed to create a firestorm to terrorise civilians. Success can be gauged by survivors’ accounts citing the smell of burning flesh as the furnace sucked in men, women, children and animals.
In Syria, government forces drop barrel bombs — oil drums stuffed with explosives and shrapnel — far behind any front line. Amnesty International reports them falling on markets, hospitals and schools.
In a 2002 paper, Lebanese lawyer and professor Chibli Mallat argued that while terrorism had become “the original sin from which all evil arguably derives”, it was often “a fig leaf for selective repression”. Mallat cited international criminal law within that the 9-11 attacks qualified “as a crime against humanity, a category which, unlike ‘terrorism’, is well-defined and carries the common responsibility of humankind”.
In prophetic words, he added: “If the September 11th attacks were defined as a crime against humanity… many would find it easier to follow the American lead in the search for the perpetrators… rather than the open-ended and ill-defined crusade against an indeterminate foe.”
Bringing terrorism within the rule of law has three advantages. First, statutes and precedents cover not just crimes against humanity but wider wartime behaviour, human rights and international humanitarian law.
Second, law is dispassionate and, applied fairly, consistent. Predictability makes contract law important in business and economic development; it encourages people to pay taxes and not dump rubbish in the street.
Third, a legal framework puts responsibilities on those fighting terrorists. Rather than wage an open-ended war on terror, they must define their war aims. Rather than demonising enemies, they must concede that they too may have aims. This may improve prospects for peace and reconciliation and break rather than perpetuate a cycle of violence.