Syria Ceasefire Plan Faces Hurdles: What Constitutes Terrorism?

By Patrick Goodenough | November 17, 2015 | 5:14am EST
Ahrar-al-Sham, a Salafist group considered one of the most effective fighting forces in the Syrian conflict, has links to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. (Image:

( – As part of a stepped-up initiative to resolve the Syrian conflict, a group of governments has asked Jordan to compile a list of terror groups operating there that will be exempt from a ceasefire, but conflicting views of what constitutes “terrorism” threatens to undermine the effort.

The so-called International Syria Support Group (ISSG), meeting in Vienna on Saturday, set out a plan involving a nation-wide ceasefire, coupled with negotiations between Syrian regime and rebel representatives – to begin by a January 1 target date – leading to elections and a new constitution within 18 months.

Longstanding differences persist among the group’s members on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But a more immediate problem may be the question of which of the groups fighting in Syria should continue to be targeted once the ceasefire begins.

The ISSG agrees that actions against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) must continue, irrespective of the ceasefire – but beyond those two groups, the parties have a range of opinions.

The ISSG comprises the United States, Russia, Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, together with the U.N., European Union and Arab League.

On Saturday, the group asked Jordan to compile a list of groups that should be considered ongoing targets for military action once an envisaged ceasefire has begun.

Early signs of trouble came with an assertion by Russia that Hezbollah does not fall within its definition of a terrorist group. The Shi’ite group is fighting alongside the Assad regime in a de facto alliance with Russia and Iran.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov described Hezbollah, which also operates as a political party in Lebanon, as a “legitimate sociopolitical force,” Interfax reported.

“We do not consider them a terrorist organization,” he said. “They have never committed any terrorist attacks on Russian territory.”

By contrast the U.S. has designated Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997. Before al-Qaeda attacked on 9/11, the U.S. government said Hezbollah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist organization in history.

Sunni jihadists

On the Sunni side of the Syria equation, there are groups funded by some ISSG members that are of concern to others, due to their extremist ideology and troubling alliances.

For instance Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar back Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group that is viewed by experts as one of the most effective fighting forces in the fragmented and fluid anti-Assad rebellion – despite having survived the loss of almost its entire leadership in a massive explosion in the fall of 2014.

Ahrar-al-Sham fighters in Syria with a captured tank. (Image:

Ahrar al-Sham has at times collaborated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and has fought against ISIS. But it is also a partner with the al-Nusra Front in an Islamist and jihadist coalition called the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah).

Russia has no doubts about which side of the line of acceptability Ahrar al-Sham is on: In mid-October Russian state media reported that a senior Ahrar al-Sham leader had been targeted and killed in a Russian airstrike in Homs province.

Later in October the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal reported that Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusra Front and a third jihadist group had announced yet another alliance, focusing on both the Assad regime and its Russian ally.

Yet another area of likely dispute among ISSG members relates to Syrian Kurds. While the U.S. and Russia both view the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a legitimate player in Syria – and the State Department describes the group as “a very effective fighting force against ISIL” – Turkey rejects it.

Ankara worries that Syrian Kurds’ success in controlling autonomous zones inside Syria could boost separatism among the large Kurdish minority in Turkey.

Jordan gets the job

After Saturday’s Vienna talks, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that in addition to ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the proposed ceasefire also would not apply to any other “group that in the days ahead may be determined by the support group as qualifying as a terrorist organization.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking alongside Kerry, spoke of an effort “to find a unified, common list of terrorist organizations.”

“We have mutual agreements, as John has said, that ISIS and al-Nusra Front are terrorist organizations, but other terrorist groups should also become the legitimate goal that we should fight [against],” he said.

Lavrov said many ISSG members have now drafted their own lists, and “we have asked Jordan to coordinate the common list of terrorist groups, which would be agreed upon in the U.N. Security Council.”

The requirement for Security Council endorsement adds to the complications. Since the U.S. and Russia both hold veto power, differences between them on the status of any group will require one of them to back down.

A formal statement issued by the ISSG said that group “reiterated that Da’esh [ISIS], Nusra, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants and endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, must be defeated.”

It said Jordan “agreed to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists.”

Looming disputes over which groups in Syria are terrorists and thus targetable reflect broader differences in the international community that for decades have prevented the U.N. from reaching a common definition for terrorism.

At the center of that failure is the demand by Islamic states that violent struggle against what they view as illegal occupation must be excluded from any definition of terrorism – thereby exempting groups like Hamas in the Palestinian-administered territories and jihadist organizations fighting Indian rule over part of disputed Kashmir.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s anti-terror convention of 1999 spells out the position: “[A]rmed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”

The OIC has been invited to join the ISSG with effect from the Syria support group’s next meeting.

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