Syria and State Terrorism

Written by Maryam Salman 1:14 am

The Curious Case of Syria and State Terrorism

Rarely acknowledged, there are many concrete examples of state terrorism in history. Syria and state terrorism are analyzed in this paper to understand how Bashar al-Assad has evaded accountability thus far – and how it has now become imperative for states to be called out when violating basic human rights.

Introduction to Syria and State Terrorism

Hammered by a vicious insurgency and mass protests for more than five years now, the Syrian state is still standing – damaged, shaken, but very much alive. While the world had been waiting with much anticipation for the regime to hand over its chemical warfare arsenal – after President Bashar al-Assad’s dramatic pronouncement acknowledging the same in the early days of the Syrian crisis – the deployment of sarin by his forces on the populace of Ghouta invited retaliation in the form of United States’ airstrikes, and trade embargoes by the United Nations.

However, having received continued backing from its staunch allies of Russia and Iran, the Syrian state has, for the most part, averted accountability for its actions against its people, and seems to be involved in exhaustive measures to preoccupy its enemies abroad with seeking and destroying chemical facilities. In addition to President Bashar al-Assad’s illustrative narrative of jihadists (from the ranks of Al Qaeda at the start of the Syrian crisis, and later from the Islamic State dominating the insurgent landscape of the country), the government’s portrayal of the crisis as being the protracted outcome of raw sectarianism has absolved to an appreciative degree, especially in the eyes of its people.

Certainly, with diplomatic efforts amounting more to frivolity than contingent action, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has incrementally stepped up the deployment of lethal weaponry against civilians. This modus operandi has been established not without comprehensive scrutiny: after careful deliberation of what the world would tolerate or ignore, the Syrian state has embarked on the indiscriminate use of armaments to support its cause (Leenders, 2013).

Such aggressive use of force by the government has stood in stark contrast with the assessments that President Assad has been too detached from the Syrian crisis, or too unsophisticated in channelling the ever-increasing demands of his citizens into lesser-threatening avenues. Accurate readings of the Syrian crisis aside, the Assad government seems to pay not much regard to what the world perceives its actions to be.  On the contrary, the regime’s claim that the Syrian state has and remains, by and large, the irreplaceable provider of welfare services (even for the many Syrians living outside the areas under the government’s control), and continues to play an integral part in fashioning the Syrian state as a “father” to its people, thus acquitting it from being the perpetrator of unjustified political violence (Khaddour, 2015).

This paper does not attempt to go into the numerous intricacies that characterise the Syrian crisis due to the infeasibility of such an exhaustive and, more importantly, contested situation. Bipartisan consensuses in the public and political spheres and the complexity of the conflict limit the focus of this paper to solely, and explicitly, identifying arguments for regarding the Syrian state not just as the sponsor of political violence, but also the de facto actor of such violence. Thus, this paper hypothesises President Assad’s government to be a terrorist actor, and – based on an analysis of its actions – tries to prove the same.

Extreme caution has been exercised in the selection of sources to support this research, and the largely understudied and miscommunicated discourse of the Syrian crisis justifies the novel, though limited, aim of this paper. As it is rooted in an ongoing conflict, this paper narrows its focus to the case of the Syrian state post the outbreak of the Arab Uprisings in 2011. In so doing, the author identifies several limitations, yet at the same time carves a unique, lesser-explored niche of study to provide to the lack of academic literature on President Assad’s government and its policy of repressive, political violence.

Two comprehensive factors – identified as the sponsoring of terrorist acts and organisations, and securing legitimacy – open the discussion for considering the curious case of the Syrian state as a terrorist actor. Before commencing on the extrapolation of these two factors, the paper expounds briefly on the phenomenon and history of state terrorism alongside a short synopsis of the Syrian crisis. The paper will then identify the aforementioned factors that support the argument of Syria as an actor of terrorism.

As a final detail, the paper relies on theoretical frameworks from reputed political science and international relations’ schools to obtain data pertaining to the Syrian conflict, and to subsequently unravel some of the ambiguous dichotomies surrounding the phenomenon of state terrorism. Now that the limitations and scope of study regarding the topic have been established, a review of the history, defining attributes, characteristics, and stratagems of state terrorism in relation to the Syrian state follow. The factors that support the argument for branding the Syrian government as terrorist will be discussed later.

The Curious Case of State Terrorism & the Syrian Crisis

Political violence perpetrated by the state has, for the most part (and quite unfortunately), been omitted from the volumes of academic literature present on the phenomenon of terrorism. This literature has, at its core, an analysis of the non-state actor, or what is more simply known as “terrorism from below”. This indicates a severe deficiency in the understanding, conception, and analysis of terrorism that could be detrimental to several counterterrorism measures, which are founded and exercised today. It also raises unsettling questions about the ideological orientation and political objectivity of the overall field (Jackson, 2008).

This is not to say that there isn’t a consensus amongst prominent scholars regarding the types of actors that employ political violence. An exclusive niche of academic literature concedes that objectively speaking, terrorism can be defined as a stratagem of political violence employable by any actor. However, the absence of the state as an actor of such violence limits modern and global perceptions of the term.

History presents ample proof of states being the main enactors of violence and repression upon the masses, and as such, the omission of state terrorism from academic discourse, and consequently the public sphere is a little unsettling. Indeed, it was during the French Revolution in 1793 that incipient notions of the concept of “terrorism” were born, due to the “Reign of Terror” employed by the ruling Jacobins to subdue the state’s enemies and compel obedience to the regime. That academic scholars do not cite this revolutionary event as measuring up to their definitions of terrorism, acquits the state of being a terrorist (Ansart, 2011).

When mapped on to the current-day crisis of Syria, the lack of academic literature pertaining to the phenomenon of state terrorism raises two troubling assessments for counterterrorism motives:

  1. The fact that governments, by and large, face no accountability for the actions they undertake in the name of national and political legitimacy, not only in the eyes of their people but in the eyes of the global media communications systems. This means that states do not hesitate in the perpetration of violence – justified or unjustified – to secure such legitimacy. This increases the threshold of unchecked repression and results in the gross violation of human rights, due to the misinformed or uninformed nature of the state’s actions (Schneier, 2005).
    1. International counterterrorism organisations, based on the limited purview of non-state terrorism and its discourses, formulate tactics and procedures in collaboration with governmental states (that could be the very perpetrators of the political violence being studied) to engage in combat with terrorist cells and organisations operating from below. This maneuvering of counterterrorism attention from the state to the non-state player acquits the government from having to face any consequences for its actions. In some cases, this could even prove to be an impetus to the political undertakings of the state.
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This is evident in the case of the Syrian state. Post the outbreak of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, Syria entered a state of perpetual conflict, demanding much-needed democratization in the face of President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic regime. What started as a movement expressing local grievances soon transformed into a civil war, with subsequent military repression after the government’s “national dialogue” for proposed forms of governance and local elections amounting to scant. For the Assad government, this proved to be an opportune moment.

The sprawling bureaucratic structures of the Syrian state were consolidated into highly defensible urban power centres. Functioning under the grip of the regime, they enabled the Assad government to maintain its monopoly over the provision of essential services by sympathising with war-weary Syrians (Khaddour, 2015). By maintaining its monopoly as the provider of welfare and benefits to its people, the Syrian state carved for itself a unique disposition.

Notwithstanding the support from its allies of Iran and Russia, what the Assad government manipulated to its advantage was the rise of non-state organisations (terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State) and highlight their shortcomings in being the provider of essential services to the nation. While this may sound like a natural reaction to the insecurity of losing power, the reality of the modes employed by the Syrian state in structuring and securing its autonomy as well as legitimacy, tick almost all of the tenets of the Political Terror Scale.

The Political Terror Scale identifies states as terrorists based on their respect for human rights (Stohl, 2003). Violations of these in the form of imprisonment, torture, murder, brutality, detention, and disappearances for the advancement of a state’s political and ideological goals define a state as a terrorist. This runs parallel to the modus operandi of non-state terrorist actors who, decreed by their title, violate human rights for advancing a political or ideological aim.

History is flushed with examples of authoritarian states that have engaged in gross desecrations of human rights to maintain their hold on power. Conversely, this proves that the securing of legitimacy is indeed a political motive, as much as it is an ideological aim. As the paper will discuss, the Syrian state engaged in – what can only be described as purposeful maneuvering of its situation – the creation of an “us versus them” dichotomy to proclaim itself as the champion of its people.

Certainly, while the Syrian army sought and ruthlessly targeted nascent attempts by the state’s oppositional forces (most of which were mildly political), it conveniently left the radical, jihadist Islamic State unmolested while building upon and expanding its provision of public services. In this way, the Assad regime created a chasm between itself and other non-state political/terrorist actors, becoming for battered Syrians the option they felt compelled to support.

The paper will not detail violations of human rights undertaken by other autocratic governments of the world. However, a few examples of such violations will be highlighted to add context to the discussion. The Communist Eastern European regimes of the 20th century were famed for their employment of brutality and coercion, as was the German Nazi State. The Southern Cone and Central American regimes of the 1960s and 1970s were identified as perpetrators of extreme state violence and sponsors of right-wing extremism, as were the “fragile” states of Africa and Asia in the post-colonial era (Bjørgo, 2005).

Clearly, the definition of terrorism as an exclusively non-state form of violence contributed to these acts of terror not being addressed as such due to their perpetration by state actors. The above examples highlight the sponsorship of extremism as a case in point when it comes to identifying acts of state terrorism. Due to the nuanced and heavily contested dichotomy of the Syrian crisis, an analysis of militaristic violence to perpetuate political aims by the state may force the author to enter contentious and conspiratorial discussions, a limitation that the paper, as mentioned before, seeks to avoid. Thus, as a factor that can be analysed under theoretical frameworks of the academic lens, the sponsorship of terrorism by the state has been selected as a discerning aspect of governmental political violence.

As an early contribution to differentiate the instantiations of state terrorism, three broadly distinguished forms of political violence undertaken by the state have been identified. These are: “overt engagements in coercive diplomacy; covert participation in assassinations, coups, bombing campaigns and the like; and, surrogate activities, in which assistance is offered to a secondary state or insurgent organisation for the conduct of terrorism”(Jarvis & Lister, 2014: Stohl, 1984). It is the last form that supports the argument for considering President Bashar al-Assad’s government as an actor of state terrorism.

Care, however, needs to be drawn to the fact that global media communications systems and Euro American discourses consider Syria to solely be the sponsor of extremism, but disregard the exclusive branch of study in the field of terrorism that concludes that the sponsorship of political violence is in itself an act of state terrorism. Another factor that the author believes can be accurately assessed through the theoretical frameworks of the academic lens is the forms (coercive, repressive, and even insidious) that the state employs in securing its national and political legitimacy.

This has been identified as a discerning element of state terrorism, and in the case of the Syrian state, is observable in the covert tactics the government engages in to stand as a champion of its people. The following section will cast a closer look at the Syrian state’s behaviour, and how such behaviour seeks to fulfil the government’s vested goal of holding on to the power and legitimacy it so desperately needs. Indeed, in moves that are covert, manipulative, and in violation of human rights, the Syrian state clings on to its title of the “one true kingdom” of its people.

Sponsoring Foreign Terrorist Organisations

Surrogate activities carried out by the government of a state in which assistance and support are offered to a secondary state or insurgent organisation – in this case, a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) – for the conduct of terrorism were identified by Stohl (1984) as being one of the distinct characteristics of state terrorism. In the case of the Syrian state, President Bashar al-Assad’s long-standing relationship with Hezbollah, officially recognised as a foreign terrorist organisation, has been branded (for pro-Assad supporters) as the most fruitful enterprise the government has invested in since Hezbollah’s participation in the 1982 Lebanese civil war.

A representative of the Shia dimension of Muslim sectarianism, Hezbollah has been a topic of contentious study, surrounded by contradictory and overlapping dichotomies, some of which regard the organisation as a terrorist group, and others which cite it as a welfare state, or a state within a state. This paper maintains Hezbollah to be a hybrid organisation; while it runs profitable criminal enterprises, it also operates schools and hospitals and provides the Shia population of Lebanon with social assistance and benefits. This is not to say that Hezbollah has not engaged in terrorist activities. In 2012, the group gained notoriety for plotting terrorist attacks on Israeli representatives in Europe that coincided with Iran’s campaign of terrorist attacks on Israelis worldwide (Jenkins, 2013).

Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict came as a consequence of protecting its supply routes through Syria and supporting its alliance with both the Irani and al-Assad governments. This paves the ground for an interesting discussion. Hezbollah arrived in Syria as – what the global communications media systems regarded – an army of ‘conventional forces’ or ‘an extension of the Syrian Army’ (Vasilescu, 2016). This discourse believed that Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict was encouraged not to carry out terrorist operations, but to support the Assad government’s efforts in combating the rebel and opposition groups demanding a change of government.

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Due to the pejorative nature of the organisation, the identification of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation is subject to political dispute. Nevertheless, by operating as an extension of the Syrian Army, the group became complicit in the perpetuation of violence undertaken by the Assad government. This points to what can be regarded as a nuanced relationship between the Syrian state and its Lebanese “state-within-a-state” supporter.

Since the Assad government was worried about the loyalty of its Sunni troops due to the escalation of sectarianism in the conflict, the Syrian state opened avenues for the incorporation of Hezbollah into its government forces. The organisation provided experienced terrorist veterans to the Syrian regime in exchange for securing the Syrian supply route and consolidating its alliance with the Irani state. Utilising Hezbollah’s experience in warfare and militaristic arsenal, the Syrian state succeeded in wresting the important town of Qusayr from opposition groups, a feat held in high regard amongst pro-Assad supporters (Jenkins, 2013).

The discussion nevertheless pertains to the tactics employed by both the Syrian state and the organisation of Hezbollah in the furthering of their political aims, if an argument for how and why the Syrian government identifies as a terrorist actor is to be made. Hezbollah’s intervention into the Syrian crisis is prolific for the organisation on three counts:

  1. By engaging in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has solidified the Assad government as an added state sponsor (after Iran);
  2. It has succeeded in securing an ideologically-aligned, supportive government to the east of Lebanon, and;
  3. It has also succeeded in gaining advanced military warfare and technology from Syria, in return for the defence of Assad.

Referring to an example regarding the procurement of advanced military warfare by Hezbollah from the Syrian state: on the 30th of January, 2013, Israeli jets destroyed a convoy carrying SA-17 ‘Grizzly’ mobile medium-range anti-aircraft missiles stationed by Hezbollah in Syria. While both Iran and Syria had consistently provided Hezbollah with arms and training, the technological and military bump in capability from the known SA-7s, SA-18s, and SA-8 ‘Gecko’ anti-aircraft missiles to the much more advanced SA-17s was seen as an indication that the Syrian regime was reciprocating the assistance it had been provided by Hezbollah (Shapir, 2013). In this way, the state strengthened its quid pro quo deal with the Lebanese faction.

In current terms, President Bashar al-Assad has, quite tactfully, manipulated his active relationship with Russia due to Russia’s access to Syria’s warm water port, Tartus. In so doing, he has secured the provision of advanced military systems from Russia which are then handed over to Hezbollah in exchange for serving the Syrian state in the crisis. Not that this has come without cost. Armed alongside Hezbollah, the Syrian government’s approach to counterinsurgency measures is informed, for the most part, by its historical undertakings in Muslim revolts and by Russian-aligned doctrines as was witnessed in the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. This is clearly a strategy of terror, characterised by the vicious yet static defence of strategic communication lines in Syria and major population centres (Notte, 2016).

Together with the Lebanese faction of Hezbollah, the Syrian state has engaged in brutal offensive operations, marked by intensive aerial and artillery bombardment, razing entire neighbourhoods and towns, the deliberate targeting of bakeries – an important component of food production – and hospitals, and the destruction of commerce in rebel-held zones. These tactics have served the dual role of terrorising anti-Assad supporters, while at the same time binding President Assad’s forces to his government by making them complicit in actions that foreclose any other future or exit option for them (Jenkins, 2013).

Thus, it can be said that the Syrian state checks off the characteristics typical to the sponsoring of terrorism as a facet of state terrorism. It does so with the Lebanese faction of Hezbollah that sports a history rich in betrayal and cooperation with the enemy and sponsors the group through the provision of advanced militaristic warfare, modern anti-aircraft missiles, artillery and technology obtained from its other ardent supporter, Russia. By so doing, the Syrian state ensures its survival in the face of rising opposition and also furthers its national and political legitimacy.

Coercion as Legitimization

The legitimacy of rule in the Middle East, as put by Gause (2013), is taken to mean the supposed compatibility of a form of rule with Arab historical and cultural norms. Examined under such lens, legitimacy draws from socio-cultural factors such as longevity of rule and tribal descent. President Bashar al-Assad has utilised both his family’s history as rulers of the Syrian state and his descent from the Qalbiyya tribe, a confederation of the Alawite community of Syria as factors that legitimise his governance over the country.

In their over forty-year history of ruling the country, the Assads have constantly blurred the lines between the regime i.e. a collection of informal family, community, religious, and other networks that operate within and outside the institutional framework of the state, and the Syrian state i.e. the apparatus that administers the country and provides services, to foster their legitimacy as the one true rulers of the Syrian nation (Khaddour, 2015). In this way, the Assad government has manipulated the boundaries separating the entities of regime and state in tactics that can be identified not merely as a dissident, but repressive, coercive, and indeed, as violations of human rights.

Let us try to understand this more empirically. Historically speaking, governments have resorted to coercion to acquiesce masses and guarantee their submission to the legitimacy of the regime; in countries with low political activism and a cosmetic civil society, moulding the public’s perception is easier and more successful than in nations with an independent and fully functioning civil society. Syria has been documented as a country characterised by heavy repression, where mass mobilization or the like has always been considered a possibility too remote to last long.

Indeed, when the Arab Uprisings unfolded in Tunisia, President Bashar al-Assad declared that Syria would be immune to the protests gripping its regional neighbours, due to the country’s “exceptionalism” – a discreet way of reassuring both the regime and its people that Syria was too prosperous and bountiful to have to engage in similar mass mobilizations. Of course, he was wrong. Within months of protests unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians took to the streets in Dara’a in a similar fashion; however, Assad’s keen eye reacted at the first instance in moves that could only be described at the time as impulsive.

Repression by the government radicalised the small-scale protests into a much larger movement, causing the state to push aside moral considerations and clamp down – quickly – on the rapidly spreading uprising (Leenders, 2013). Indiscriminate repression, and the opening of chemical warfare in the form of sarin on the populace in Ghouta, followed later by “barrel bombs” laced with chlorine, were the Assad government’s immediate forms of reaction to the protests, but it did not stop there.

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In a bid to acquiesce civilians to the regime, the Syrian state gleaned a golden opportunity in radical Islamic factions that were coming to power from the vacuum cells being created due to the crisis as well as in the masses of war-torn Syrians scrambling for cover under the regime’s violence. The prospects for reassuring legitimacy now had ample ground in the face of the movement, and it did not take Assad long to embark on the process.

Syrian activists of the uprisings were systematically targeted for arrest, torture, beating and assassination by the Assad regime that learnt quickly that if it had to survive, it would have to crush the mass mobilizations more than the militarized insurgencies opposing the government. It should be remembered here that all mass mobilizations in the country were carried out by civilians, and Syrian activists were all identified as civilians, with no background or association to any foreign state or organisation – terrorist or not.

The Syrian state excused itself for clamping down on civilians in the name of counterterrorism efforts against radical Islamic factions and began reaching out to the battered, war-weary Syrians through its state institutions. From the very beginning of the protests, the Syrian state had realised that the activists were elusive because of their reliance on diffuse, clan-based, and/or tribal networks, which posed a serious problem for the regime’s security forces and intelligence agencies.

President Assad soon found himself unable to quell protestors due to the diversity of their solidarity networks but found in the instantiating effect of widespread chemical warfare, a viable solution to clamp down on the uprisings. To further his cause, he also decided to court the leaders and heads of clans and tribes throughout the country, to take out key members of the uprising and arrest en masse members involved – and even sent former Syrian prison inmates (who were conditionally released and trained in combat and acts of brutality) to compete with civilian protestors.

These efforts did not put an end to the insurgency as Assad might have hoped, but it sent a strong and clear signal to the regime’s opposition and the audience watching worldwide of the Syrian government’s comparative advantage in violence (Leenders, 2013). While, in itself, this would make for a comprehensive study, it is explicitly the nature of these tactics that make the case for why the Assad regime identifies as a state terrorist.

Conclusion

This discussion can now be summarized in a short conclusion.

  1. The Syrian state has engaged in the sponsoring of foreign terrorist organisations, namely Hezbollah, through the provision of military arsenal, artillery, advanced communications technology, and anti-aircraft missiles procured from the government of Russia, in exchange for defending the Assad regime.
  2. The Syrian state continues to foster its national and political legitimacy by resorting to acts of violence, torture, imprisonment, assassination, detention, and opening of warfare on the mass mobilizations gripping the country – and then reaching out to helpless Syrians through its state institutions.
  3. By explicitly relying on these two factors alone, it can be concluded that the Syrian government indeed qualifies as an actor, perpetrator, and committer of political violence. As mentioned before, through its acts of dissidence and manipulation, the Syrian state has fostered an image of the ‘people’s champion’ for itself; however, the reality of its tactics confirms the desecration of human values and the gross violation of human rights and dignities.
  4. The Political Terror Scale has accorded Syria with the maximum score of 5 for engaging in organised crime, massive human rights abuses, mass executions, chemical and military warfare,  and unlawful detention and torture in the name of holding on to power (PTS, 2014).
  5. While nascent in its attempt at branding the Syrian state as a terrorist, the discussion above provides a clean, comprehensive picture that extends and provides to the debate regarding the Assad regime. It aims to assist in the reconfiguration of global perception and regional discourse to better inform counterterrorism motives and strategies, not merely against non-state terror groups in Syria, but the Syrian government as a terrorist actor itself.

References

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About the Author(s)

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Maryam Salman graduated from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where she received her Master in International Relations degree. She currently works for Qamar Energy, an oil and gas consultancy firm, in Dubai, UAE.

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