Syria: the ‘extremist dilemma’

(Progress) As we hurtle towards the third year anniversary of the conflict in Syria it is time to address how extremists are increasingly centre-stage.


Let us consider two moments in the conflict in Syria. Last September, when it looked to the entire world that the United States was about to strike the country, Senator Ted Cruz criticised President Barack Obama’s efforts saying the U3S military shouldn’t be ‘al-Qaida’s air force.’ Last week Syrian rebels issued a plea to the West to supply them with arms and supplies. However what made this plea different from the numerous previous ones was that the weapons were requested to fight al-Qaida linked groups.



The presence of ‘extremists’ within the rebel opposition has been a critical factor in the arguments of the regime, its allies and those in the west who warn that the conflict has no good guys and is best avoided. The price of inaction is well known, over 120,000 dead, over half a million wounded and almost half the country displaced from their homes. Today there are almost more Syrians living outside of Syria than in the country. It’s time to acknowledge that the narrative born largely of the ‘War on Terror’ continues to dominate the British public’s view of the Syrian Opposition and therefore options around our greater involvement in the conflict.


Those who claim ownership of and expertise on our wars have helped to create a clear divide between ‘good’ violence – as far as that’s possible in a state’s use of force – against ‘bad’ violence from non-state actors. Subsequently following a legacy of the Israel-Palestine conflict, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq public opinion is more fearful of non-state groups than brutal rogue states. Non-state groups are regularly labelled ‘terrorists’ – perhaps one of the most contentious words of our generation. Academic Alex Schmid has identified 109 different definitions of the word terrorism. American Journalist Terry Anderson, who was held hostage for six years during the Lebanon civil war, raged against the use of the word – claiming that it was a pejorative expression that should either be applied to all sides in the conflict or not at all. The late Professor Fred Halliday, a master of 10 languages, described terrorism as ‘above all in the Middle East, a subject of such distortion and myth that it is impossible to establish a balanced discussion of it’. Veteran Independent correspondent Robert Fisk wrote in Pity the Nation that ‘terrorism no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. “Terrorists” are those who use violence against the side that is using the word’.


There is some irony that the word ‘terrorism’ dates from the French Revolution, where it was originally used to refer to the use of terror by governments against their own population. Today the roles are very much reversed and the Syrian regime frequently uses the word, asserting that the upcoming Geneva 2 peace conference should be about ‘combating terrorism’. Assad has been clever. By articulating his repression of what were originally peaceful protests as a battle of a government against ‘terrorists’ he has spoken in the same terms as those who have launched and sustained the western global fight against ‘terrorists’.


What is more, with the media finding it almost impossible to report properly on the conflict due to safety concerns, it is extremely difficult to know who rebel groups really are. Osama Bin Laden’s greatest legacy is perhaps in creating a franchise that can seemingly be owned or applied to anyone. The phrase ‘groups linked to al-Qaida’ paints a broad brush over the plethora of different organisations that are fighting in Syria. If you have a beard, chant religious language and are wielding an AK-47 you fit into what looks and sounds like the accepted profile of an al-Qaida terrorist. We seem to have given up wanting to understanding beyond that.


And herein lies the dilemma. Syrian extremists dominate coverage just as much as a Ukip councillor saying something stupid about sexuality will garner far more headlines than the moderate Labour councillors getting on with their jobs all across the country. The Syrian moderate voice, in a country of poets, doctors, businessmen and beyond, has been almost completely absent from the story of the conflict. The predictable disorganisation of a Syrian opposition emerging from decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule should not mean that it should be simply hijacked by extremists and left to suffer the barrel bombs and nerve gas attacks unaided.


2014 is a crucial year for Syria. The Geneva 2 conference this month and its aftermath is the moment to challenge the current story of the conflict. Those in the foreign policy community must take the difficult step of refusing to allow Assad’s binary of ‘with us or with the terrorists’ to continue unchallenged. The conflict is rapidly becoming the defining one for a generation and we must transition from being horrified onlookers to active players in bringing it to a close.



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