Terrorism and freedom fighting along the Syria-Iraq border

When some rebel groups kill Syrian government soldiers, the US applauds. When others do the killing, it's 'terrorism.' Why?

Khalid al-Mousuly/Reuters
Smoke rises after what the photographer said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar al-Assad at the Syrian town of Yaarabiya, near the main Syria-Iraq border March 2.

War is hell, right? Soldiers do whatever they can to win and survive. Officers do whatever they can to shape engagements so that superior numbers and firepower are rained down on an outnumbered enemy. Boobytraps, killing the other guy while he sleeps in his bed, and dropping artillery on his head from a safe distance are all part of a day’s work.

So why did US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland label the killing of 46 Syrian troops in Iraq last week an act of “terrorism” on Monday?

Aside from the fact that the word “terrorism” has been tortured beyond all semblance of its conventional meaning in the past decade, it’s a comment – deliberate or not – that illuminates the strange, dangerous, and contradictory waters the US is wading into in Syria.

The US has recently announced more support for Syria’s rebels and has tacitly approved an arms pipeline paid for by Saudi Arabia and running through Jordan to militias fighting to take down Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Syria has been under US sanctions for decades and President George W. Bush's most hawkish advisers, like Dick Cheney, were eager to invade Syria on the heels of Iraq in 2003.

So the killing of Syrian soldiers by rebels is good, right? Well, not exactly. Depending on who does the killing it can be labelled as terrorism or the actions of a people striving to be free.

Where the weapons are

In this case the killing was done by the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), an Al Qaeda affiliated group that's been helping its Syrian comrades across the border. Among their friends are Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel military units, which was recently added to the US terrorist list. The militia is largely composed of jihadis, ideologically akin to Al Qaeda, and the US has been worried that the arms and prestige they’re accruing in the fight against Assad will be turned on American interests later.

The large number of Sunni Islamists in the fight in Syria, many of whom have traveled from around the region to fight Assad and his heretical (in their eyes) Alawite faith, much as jihadis flocked to fight the Americans in Iraq, or the Russians in Afghanistan, frighten the US. 

US officials say the arms flowing into Syria have bypassed Nusra and other jihadi groups, but in most conflicts like this, weapons flow to the best fighters, and Nusra like to lead from the front. Civilian leaders of the uprising have been exasperated with the US position, complaining that the US is more interested in measuring the length of rebels' beards than in seeing them defeat Assad.  

Not surprisingly, reporters on the ground say they’ve started to see the weapons Saudi Arabia is buying from Croatia to arm the “good” rebels in jihadi hands.

The US has spent months trying to find a way to support the anti-Assad side of the Syrian civil war in a way that will limit sectarian killings and other atrocities, and steer pro-American forces into the best position to take over the country if and when the current regime collapses.

Has it found a good way to do this? No. It’s a nearly impossible task, particularly now that the war has dragged on for more than two years with nearly 70,000 dead and one in 20 Syrians displaced from their homes. It’s hard to imagine a decisive victory – for either the rebels, mostly members of Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, or for the regime, which relies heavily on the Alawite minority Assad belongs to – that doesn’t lead to large numbers of sectarian reprisal killings.

Which brings us back to events in Iraq, a country that's no stranger to sectarian violence.

According to Ms. Nuland, the Syrian soldiers killed last week had been wounded on the battlefield and taken to Iraq for medical care. As they were being transported back to the fight, they were ambushed by the ISI. "They were attacked with terrorist tactics," she said, calling the soldiers "noncombatants." In fact, killing enemy soldiers returning to the battlefield is something the US, like most militaries, has done in all of its conflicts.

Iraq support for Assad

So what's going on?

Notice that Iraq is providing at least passive assistance to Assad's military. It has good reason to, notwithstanding that puts it at odds with US policy. The Shiite-dominated Iraq the US helped create is hated by both homegrown jihadis and their friends across the border. A defeat for Assad would lead to a Sunni-dominated neighbor, certain to be more hostile to Iraq's interests and potentially a supporter of a reignited Sunni insurgency.

Syria was a popular safe haven and transit point for insurgents during the height of the Iraq war (while Assad had reason to fear jihadis himself, given that the US had repeatedly threatened an invasion, allowing them to tie up US forces in another country made sense) and could easily become one again under a Sunni regime. 

So it's the US position that looks strange. It spent billions of dollars and the lives of nearly 4,500 soldiers in Iraq, fighting to put down a Sunni insurgency that was described as a grave threat to American interests. Today, the US government policy is assisting a Sunni insurgency in Syria that is not only similar in character to the one put down in Iraq, but has surviving Iraqi veterans of the war serving in it. The ISI’s core strength is in Anbar Province (these folks fought ferocious pitched battles against the US in Fallujah in 2004 and 2005), and its members have strong family and tribal ties along the Euphrates river into Syria.

The US knows this, and is trying to find a way to reassure countries like Iraq that Sunni Islamists will not dominate Syria if Assad is defeated. After all, Iraq may be helping Assad a little bit, but it could do a lot more if its alarm levels rise. In essence, the US is pursuing a policy that's harmful to Iraqi interests, can potentially empower people that are hostile to both Iraqi and US interests, and is trying to use language to smooth all this over. 

Which led Nuland into a very odd, strained statement. She appeared to define terrorism as killing anyone not in the middle of an all-out battle. "We’ve been pretty clear about calling out attacks against folks who are not in the middle of a firefight all the way through this from both sides," she said. By this definition, every drone assassination carried out by the Bush and Obama administrations has been terrorism, as have the frequent tactics of bombing or ambushing insurgents at home, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's an absurd definition of terrorism. Usually governments say absurd things when the policy being discussed is filled with contradictions.

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