“War on Terror” Rhetoric Is Being Used to Justify the Killing of Syrians

Close to 1 million have fled the governorate of Idlib in northwest Syria since December 2019, after months of escalating aerial bombardment from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian state air forces. In 2019, the Assad regime and Russia escalated aerial attacks on civilians in Idlib, targeting schools, hospitals and residential areas, killing 1,648 civilians, including 392 children. During one particularly intense bout of bombings, headlines reported at least 200 airstrikes in three days during the end of January 2020. It’s a crisis that many warned was coming since the fall of Eastern Ghouta in 2018, when many civilians from the area were displaced into Idlib. Once home to 1.5 million people pre-2011, Idlib today is home to some 3 million people — most of whom are civilians who have been displaced from other areas of bombing across Syria.

Many in the United States have struggled to contextualize the conflict in Syria, certainly in no small part due to a disinformation campaign hinged on confusing civilians with terrorists. The success of this disinformation campaign is mainly through its repurposing of “war on terror” rhetoric — a narrative initially branded by the United States post-9/11 that explicitly hinges on the fear of religious Muslims — in service of the Syrian state, which re-framed the Syrian Revolution’s demands for political justice as a choice between religiously fanatic al-Qaeda terrorists or the regime itself, the “secular” option. To understand what is happening in Idlib today, it’s important to recognize the ways in which every state that is using aerial power in Syria is justifying it, at least in part, through war on terror rhetoric.

One major arena where we see this rhetoric play out is in the United Nations. For example, Resolution 2401 “affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al Qaeda and Al Nusra Front (ANF) [formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra], as designated by the Security Council.”

This means part of the reason why bombings against civilians have been allowed to continue in Syria is that each state conducting the bombings — Syria, Russia, the United States and Turkey — purport they are bombing “terrorists” and never civilians. By doing so, these states are able to continue bombing in Syria with impunity, as security council resolutions allow them to do so.

We also see this rhetoric in state media. For example, the Syrian state response to popular protests calling for government reform was ultimately to label protesters as terrorists. This led to the “Assad or We Burn the Country Campaign,” wherein the state would besiege and bomb areas into submission. The crisis in Idlib today is considered the “last” part of the regime’s crackdown on anti-authoritarian dissent and continues to follow this “terrorism” narrative, as the regime and its allies frame Idlib as being a terrorist haven. Earlier in January 2020, the Assad regime retook Maarat al-Nouman and Saraqib, two towns known for their revolutionary creativity and visible protests against both Jabhat al Nusra and the Assad regime.

The United States is waging a continuation of its own war on terror through the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, which began bombing Syria and Iraq in 2014. While ISIS fighters are indeed responsible for horrors, including genocide toward locals, U.S. military missions against “terrorism” are often conducted without accountability toward the local communities. According to the monitoring group Airwars, the U.S.-led coalition is responsible for around 8,000-13,000 civilian deaths across both countries. Turkey is both an official partner of the U.S.-led coalition and has conducted its own air raids against Kurdish areas in Syria, killing an estimated 997 civilians. When the Turkish state speaks of these operations, they frame their work in terms of fighting terrorism. One year after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing in Syria, Russia sent its air force to support Bashar al-Assad’s forces, echoing the regime’s narrative that its military operations were to fight terrorism. According to multiple monitoring groups, however, Russian and Syrian aerial operations have been mainly bombing civilian infrastructure within Syria, such as hospitals and schools. Airwars estimates that the Russian air force is responsible for 3,700- 5,500 civilian deaths.

It’s worth noting that Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard was able to successfully position herself as the “antiwar” candidate based in part on allying herself with strongmen, including Assad. On the surface, it seems contradictory: how could someone who appears to repeatedly speak out against war, in fact, be pro-war? Gabbard is able to do this because she is not against the root causes of war (she is openly pro-U.S. military) and she is not against all wars, only a certain kind: regime-change wars. This explains why her defense of Assad has always gone back to Syria’s state sovereignty; otherwise, she can be understood as a war on terror hawk.

It’s gravely concerning that multiple states are using war on terror rhetoric to justify bombing civilians today. Lack of solidarity from mainstream U.S. antiwar organizations toward the Syrian revolution during different phases of the conflict, including this phase of the regime recapturing Idlib, indicates both the success of these narratives and a need for more political education on the war on terror, how and when to recognize it, and means of resisting it. The challenge today is to push antiwar politics in the United States to internationalize in a way that is informed by the reality of warfare: that war is waged by multiple imperial actors and authoritarian regimes — including the United States, but not exclusive to it — who are using arguments of the war on terror and state sovereignty to fuel endless wars.