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The Syrian Conflict and the Difficulty of Defining Who is a Terrorist

The Syrian Conflict and the Difficulty of Defining Who is a Terrorist

By Priye S. Torulagha



The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between the Syrian conflict and terrorism by identifying and analyzing the non-state armed groups that are fighting for or against the Syrian regime, and the countries that support them. In doing so, the definitional problem of determining who is a terrorist and which group is a terrorist organization is discussed. It is strongly believed here that the Syrian civil war is going to produce a large number of highly trained and experienced military veterans that might fill the ranks of future non-state armed groups. It is also believed that the Syrian conflict is going to generate enormous quantities of arms that would eventually end up in the arms of Al Qaeda, ISIS and other violent non-state armed groups if the situation is not well managed.

Indeed, the ongoing Syrian conflict has brought to the fore the complexity of dealing with terrorism. While terrorism can be defined as the use and or repeated threat of using violence to achieve a goal, it is much more difficult to identify or determine who is a terrorist and what entity constitutes a terrorist organization.

The reason is that terrorism is like beauty in the sense that it is in the eye of the beholder. While one individual might view the use and or the repeated threat of using violence to achieve a political or religious or an economic end as terrorism, another individual might view the same act as an instrument of liberation or freedom. Similarly, while an individual who uses violence or the repeated threat of using violence to achieve a political or religious or an economic goal could be regarded as a terrorist, another individual might view the same individual as a freedom fighter who is fighting to bring change or free people from political or religious or economic bondage. Likewise, while an organization dedicated to using violence to achieve a political or religious or an economic end might be viewed by an individual as a terrorist organization, the same organization could be regarded by another individual as a freedom fighting entity. As a result, while some people might regard Al Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Taliban, Hezbollah, Houthie Rebels, and so on and so forth, as terrorist organizations, those who support them tend to regard them as freedom fighting organizations.

Thus, there seems to be no middle ground in approaching the issue of terrorism. Hence, an individual who uses violence to achieve a political or religious or an economic goal is either a terrorist or a freedom fighter. Due to the zero-sum manner in which the subject matter is dealt with, historically, it has always been a great challenge to resolve or eradicate terrorism. It continues to be so in the twenty-first century.


1.The Syrian civil war dramatically shows the difficulty of defining who is a terrorist and which entity constitutes a terrorist organization. (2) The war against international terrorism is not winnable since the countries that fight the war also indirectly contributes to its proliferation, as the Syrian situation clearly shows. (3) The Syrian civil war is likely to contribute to the proliferation of sophisticated military weaponry in various parts of Africa, Middle East, Asia and Europe.

The difficulty of determining which group is a terrorist organization and who is a terrorist is demonstrated by the disagreement between the United States and Russia over the characterization of the non-state armed groups in the Syrian conflict. The disagreement arose following Russian effort to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s National Defense Forces (NDF) to push back rebel forces that threaten his hold on power. To reinforce the NDF, Russian Airforce planes started bombarding rebel positions in September 30, 2015 (Zorthian, 2015, October 7). It turned out that some of the rebel forces that the Russians targeted in their military operations were members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA included some rebel groups that the U.S. recruited, trained and armed to fight against the Syrian regime and the ISIS. The US reacted to the Russian bombing by saying that the Russians were bombing moderate Syrian rebel forces rather than the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In response to the accusation, Russian officials replied that they were attacking terrorists. The Russian response indicated that it regards all militant or armed groups fighting against the Syrian regime as terrorist organizations. On the other hand, the US tends to view the armed groups it supports as moderate rebel forces rather than terrorist groups, hence, was puzzled that Russia bombed them, instead of ISIS fighters. Again, in June 2016, Russian Airforce was accused of attacking rebel forces supported by the United States. The U.S. Defense Secretary, Mr. Ash Carter, reacted to the Russian attack by saying “Here’s a case where they actually attacked forces that were fighting ISIL. And if that was their intention, that’s the opposite of what they said they were going to do, if not, then it says something about the quality of the information upon which they make airstrikes” (Schleifer &Starr, 2016, June 17).

On the other hand, the US military carried out an air strike that ended up killing 60 or more members of the Syrian military forces around September 16 or 17, 2016 when a cease-fire was supposed to take place. On realization that it had struck a Syrian military force rather than the ISIS or al Qaeda, the United States immediately rendered an apology through the Russian government to the Syrian state (Fox News, September 17, 2016). In reaction, Russia decided to invite the United Nations to investigate the matter, perhaps, suspecting that the bombing was a tactical effort to gain rebel advantage over Syrian forces during the cease-fire. Here again, it is evident that the Syrian conflict is increasing mutual suspicion between the two most powerful military states, thereby, reinforcing the Cold War between them.

The disagreement between the two great military powers concerning which group should be treated as a terrorist organization and which group should be regarded as a rebel force sharpened the discussion and brought to the fore the lack of global agreement on who is a terrorist and which organization constitutes a terrorist network. It also showed why the Syrian conflict is very complicated and difficult to resolve. Indeed, in Syria, the military situation is so muddled up that it is difficult to make any sense of the conflict as the parties to the conflict continue to unleash violence and destruction, thereby, forcing millions of Syrians to flee as refugees.

The Armed Groups Fighting in Syria and Possibly Iraq

It might be necessary to identify some of the groups fighting in Syria and their backers in order to shed light on the complex situation. The multitudes of armed groups fighting in the civil war can be divided into six main factions: (1) The Free Syrian Army (FSA), (2) Predominant Syrian Islamist Groups, (3) International Islamist Groups, (4) The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), (5) The Shia Groups, and (6) the Syrian Democratic Forces.

  1. The Free Syrian Army : The Free Syrian Army was the first armed group to challenge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Many Syrian military officers and men who deserted the Syrian regime joined the FSA. It was supported by Qatar, Turkey and some Western governments. Despite the hope placed on the FSA to help topple the al-Assad regime, it was unable to do so due to squabbles among various factions and men within the FSA. Eventually, the Islamists became dominant militarily within the FSA and eventually split to launch their own effort to overthrow President al-Assad.Syrian Islamist Groups
  2. Syrian Islamist Group:  As stated above, the FSA included Islamist groups. Around 2013, the Islamists became the most successful groups in fighting and capturing territory from the Syrian government military forces. The success led them to become the most dominant opposition armed groups in Syria. They split from FSA and started waging war against President Bashar al-Assad. Some of the Syrian based Islamist armed groups include Martyrs of Syrian Brigade, Northern Storm Brigade, Ahrah Souriya Brigade Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh Al Islam, Suqour al-Sham. (BBC News, 2013, December 13). These groups are Sunni by religious orientation, hence, their support by the Arab Gulf states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey.
  3. The International Islamist Groups: The three main international Islamist groups fighting in Syria are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar. The Nusra Front split from ISIS in 2013 and is an affiliate of Al Qaeda. The ISIS seized territories in Iraq and Syria to declare an Islamic caliphate which it is running as a government. The ISIS offers the biggest military threat, not only to Syria and Iraq but throughout the world as it continues to expand its operational areas to Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so forth. It also has an alliance with Boko Haram in Nigeria and possibly with Al Shabab in Somalia and militant Islamic forces in Mali.  The ISIS is globally considered as the most threatening terrorist organization, considering its violent tactics. However, in 2015, in an attempt to consolidate the Sunni groups fighting against the Alawite regime of President Bashir al-Assad, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey established a unified group known as the Jaish al-Fateh (the Army of Conquest). Both the Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front became part of this coalition. The coalition is fighting against the Syrian regime as well as the ISIS and Shia-related armed groups.
  4. The Shia Groups:   While the groups described above fight with the intention of overthrowing President al-Assad, there are Shia-affiliated groups that are fighting to protect and sustain him. The Shia affiliated groups support him because they share a common strategic interest in maintaining Shia beliefs and influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemeni and some parts of Lebanon.  (a)  In Syria, two main Shia groups come to mind. They are the Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (LAAG) and Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Other groups fighting to support the Syrian regime are the National Defense Forces (NDF), Ba’ath Brigade and others (Friedland, Jawad al-Tamimi & Landis, 2016). (b) Shia armed groups from Iraq that are involved in the Syrian civil war include the Kataib al-Imam Ali (KIA), Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nulaba (HHN), Badr Organization, Kataib al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah fi al Iraq, Kataib Aimmah al-Baqiyah, Kataib al-Ansar al Willahay and so on and so forth. ( c)The main Shia armed group from Lebanon that is heavily involved in the Syrian conflict is the Hezbollah organization. It has about 20,000 to 30,000 fighters.  (d)There are also Shia armed elements from Iran that are fighting in Syria to support President al-Assad. The most notable are the Al-Quds Force and Basij Militia (Friedland, Jawal al-Tamimi & Landis, 2016).
  5. The Kurdish Groups:  In the Syrian conflict, Kurdish fighters contribute immensely toward fighting against the regime of President al-Assad and the ISIS, in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdistan forces) has been very active fighting to contain and push back ISIS. It participated in some of the major battles to retard the expansion of ISIS. In Syria, the Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) has also been contributing extensively in pushing back ISIS from the territories it captured (Zavadski, 2015, October 15). Likewise, there is also the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which has been battling Turkey to create a Kurdish State. There are concerns that the YPG might join the PKK to fight and create a territory in some parts of Turkey and Syria to establish a Kurdish state after the Syrian war ends.
  6. The Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) :  The Syrian Democratic Forces receive aerial military support from the United States. The SDF are particularly associated with the battle which drove out the ISIS from the city of Kobane (Lund, 2016, January 22).The Syrian Democratic Forces are a coalition of armed groups made up of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Syrian Christian fighters. However, the SDF seem to be dominated by Kurdish elements known as the Popular Defense Units (YPG). There is also a women’s unit known as the Women’s Defense Units (YPI). There is a strong belief that the Syria Democratic Forces are affiliated with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which is also fighting to create a Kurdish state.

These are only a few of the multitudes of armed groups fighting in Syria. Some estimate put the number of non-state armed groups in the hundreds while the number of fighters runs into more than one hundred thousand (Sinjab, 2013, December 13).

Apparently, the Syrian civil war is like a mini-world war due to the fact that many states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, the United States, France, Russia, China and others are involved either directly or indirectly in supporting, financing, training and arming assorted armed groups. Each state does so with the sole purpose of enhancing and reinforcing its strategic interests in the Middle East. The states compete fiercely for hegemony over Syria and the region. For instance, while Turkey supports Sunni-affiliated armed groups which are opposed to President al-Assad, it is wary of the Kurdish armed groups, due to fear that they might grow in strength and redirect their military effort at creating a Kurdish state. On the other hand, U.S. and its Western allies support the efforts of the Kurdish armed groups. Turkey is also antagonistic to the Shia-affiliated armed groups since the Syrian war tends to pit the Sunnis against the Shiites. Iraq and President al-Assad tend to share the same strategic interests as they fight to maintain a Shia presence in both Iraq and Syria. Thus, they are opposed to the Sunni-affiliated armed groups. Iran is aligned with Iraq and Syria and have a common interest with Russia, China, and the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon because they want to sustain the presidency of President al-Assad and the Shia dominance of the political landscape in Syria. The Arab Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni-oriented states, including Turkey, want the hegemonic predominance of Sunni Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. Jordan bears a huge burden in catering to a large number of Syrian refugees. It is working frenetically to prevent a spill-over of the Syrian conflict into its territory.

Consequently, the Syrian civil war is a four-headed strategic monster. First, President Bashar al-Assad wants to remain in power and ensure the Alawite predominance of the political landscape of the country. Second, there is an intra-Islamic power struggle between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The religious struggle is extended to Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, and possibly Nigeria. In Nigeria, the majority of the Moslems are Sunnis but there is a growing Shia presence. In fact, in a clash involving the Nigerian Army and a Shia group in December12 and 14, 2015 (Bamgboye, 2015, December 23), over three hundred Shiites were killed, thereby, compelling Iran to make a comment about the massacre. The leader of the Shia group in Nigeria, Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky, is still in detention. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two major backers of the ideological divide between the two branches of Islam. Third, al Qaeda and ISIS are engaged in a power struggle to become the most dominant international Islamic jihadist movement. They are extending their tentacles everywhere, including the Middle East, Africa, some parts of Asia, North America, and Europe. Fourth, the United States and Russia are reenacting the Cold War as they compete to establish their preeminence in the Middle East. China technically is on the side of Russia while France and Britain are on the United States side.

In this titanic struggle to control the heart of the Middle East, using Syria as the theater, the states are pouring in arms, training and supporting multifarious armed groups. Each state hopes that the non-state armed groups it support would prevail militarily to enhance its strategic advantage over other states. As a result, they do not seem to pay attention to the fact that they could be setting in motion, non-state armed elements that could turn out to be the next groups of fighters threatening the peace of the world.

Thus, it is almost impossible to define who is a terrorist and what group is a terrorist organization in the Syrian conflict. The reason is that each state regards those armed groups it supports as freedom fighters and not terrorists. Although, ISIS and al Qaeda are generally regarded as terrorist organizations, nevertheless, it is not easy to describe the other armed groups in such terms because the states that support them do not agree that they are training, arming and supporting terrorist organizations. This is why they call them rebel forces. The inability of the states to define who is a terrorist and what group is a terrorist organization creates an environment that allows more armed and dangerous groups to emerge, not only in Syria but also in other parts of the Middle East, North, East and West Africa, and Asia.

Since the countries, including the United States and Russia, could not agree in categorizing which armed group constitutes a terrorist organization, the United Nations attempted to solve the definitional problem by setting up a committee made up of European and regional countries to define, determine and establish criteria that could be used in doing so (Hassan, 2016, January 10). However, it is doubtful whether even this approach will solve the problem since sovereign states have a tendency to define their national interests in a manner that makes it difficult to establish unanimity in dealing with global terrorism.

Implications of the Syrian Conflict

The implications of the Syrian conflict are far reaching. First, due to the fact that various non-state armed groups fighting in Syria are being supported in one way or another by various countries, a sizable number of individuals have been trained in the use of military weaponry to fight either conventionally or unconventionally in the Middle East and elsewhere. Second, based on strategic and ideological reasons, various countries are motivated to intervene in the Syrian conflict by training, arming and supporting various armed groups to extend their influence. Third, a sizable quantity of highly sophisticated military weaponry has poured into the Middle East, some parts of Africa and Asia through Syria. Fourth, an increasing number of young men and women have graduated as military veterans in the Middle East, Africa and Asia following their recruitment to fight for various factions of non-state armed groups. Fifth, there is no guarantee that some of the individuals and groups that have been trained to fight in Syria and possibly Iraq would not resort to terrorism in the near future. It should be recalled that both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were organized, financed and trained as freedom fighters (Mujahedeen) to fight against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan. During that time, the two groups were not regarded as “terrorist organizations” by Western and Islamic nations, but they are now treated as such. Sixth, the signs are beginning to show that many of the armed groups in Syria would go their separate ways, thereby, developing their own agenda and operating like the al Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS. In fact, it was reported that a U.S. supported and trained group known as Division 30 refused to fight against al- Qaeda despite being encouraged to do so by the United States in 2015 (The Guardian, 2015, August 15). It was also widely reported that some rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies were not comfortable with the cease-fire deal arranged by the United States and Russia recently (Associate Press, 2016, September 11). Some groups referred to the cease-fire as a ‘trap.’ This means that the countries that are training, financing and arming the armed rebels are not fully in control of the groups. Seventh, even if the Syrian conflict, as well as the Iraqi situation end today, there is no guarantee that there will be peace in the region as thousands of young men and women would be left to roam the region, some parts of Africa and Asia looking for ways to utilize their vast military expertise. This means that the ending of the Syrian and Iraqi wars might not put an end to the possibilities of terrorist incidents taking place as thousands of trained military veterans roam about looking for ways to make good use of their military skills. Eighth, the Syrian conflict has generated enormous quantities of arms for non-state armed groups fighting in the country. These arms would eventually find their way into other parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. Ninth, as can be seen, the more the states make attempt to fight terrorism, the more they create circumstances that breed the proliferation of non-state armed groups that engage in terrorist acts. The reason is that as the states recruit, train and support various elements to fight against supposed terrorist organizations, the more they inadvertently create more terrorist producing opportunities. Tenth, therefore, the war against international terrorism is not likely to end in victory since the war requires recruiting, training and arming non-state armed groups to do the fighting since most countries do not want to commit their own armed forces to get directly involved in the war. Eleventh, the more non-state armed groups are recruited, trained and armed by various countries to fight the anti-terrorist war, the more terrorism thrives as arms and fighters profligate to feed the scourge.


Obviously, it is a catch 22 situation, as far as the war against terrorism is concerned. It is impossible to solve a problem when there is no general agreement about defining what constitutes a terrorist organization and who is a terrorist. Similarly, it is impossible to win the anti-terrorism war since the same countries that are fighting to eliminate the scourge are also indirectly responsible for germinating it through the sponsorship of non-state armed groups that have no loyalty to any country. The Syrian civil war has provided ample opportunity for many non-state armed groups to acquire sophisticated military weaponry that might spread to other parts of the world. Indeed, the Syrian war is like a witches brew with very complicated alliances.

To solve the problem of joblessness that might arise after the Syrian and Iraqi conflict end, the countries that have been responsible for creating, training and arming various non-state armed groups should prepare a plan of action to strategically demobilize, disarm, rehabilitate and retrain the military veterans so that they can adjust to civil society peacefully. Failure to do so might result in the repeat of what happened in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew. It should be recalled that in Afghanistan, the veteran Islamic fighters were left to take care of themselves as soon as the conflict ended. Well, the fighters regrouped and formed the Taliban, Northern Alliance and al-Qaeda. The al Qaeda in Iraq later changed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.


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