The Syrian Precedent?

Israel's strike against a camp in Syria this past weekend highlights the need for what Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov has proposed - an international convention against terrorism that spells out criteria for action.

Israel's strike against a camp in Syria this past weekend highlights the need for what Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov has proposed - an international convention against terrorism that spells out criteria for action.  It also points to the need to get the war against terrorism back on track. 

The varied response to the Israeli action--the U.S. State Department categorized the raid as self-defense while the French Foreign Ministry said it constituted "an unacceptable violation of international law and the rules of sovereignty,"--points to an unresolved problem in the war against terrorism.  When states are unwilling or unable to curtail the operation of terrorist organizations on their soil (or, more pertinent in the Syrian case, do not consider such organizations to be terrorist), to what extent can state sovereignty be breached in order to deal with such threats?

This is not merely an exercise in international law, it has profound ramifications for interstate relations.  In the Baltic States and in Turkey, all current or pending NATO members, there is a great deal of sympathy for the Chechen cause.  What would happen if Russian special services were to mount operations targeting offices or groups that provide assistance to Chechen separatist organizations?  One does not have to raise the specter of an Indian raid on camps in Pakistan suspected of training and harboring militants engaged in terrorist actions in Kashmir, or what might happen if China were to engage in operations in Central Asia to block support for separatists in Xinjiang.

But efforts to get an international convention have stalled.  Once again, definitional conflicts have emerged.  Two years ago, I wrote a short essay for National Review Online discussing the so-called "sympathy loophole" which allowed terrorist groups to cloak themselves in a particular cause and noted: "Groups which eschew political dialogue and utilize random violence specifically directed against civilian targets are terrorists - no matter how noble the cause they espouse. …  Even if there are legitimate grievances at play, sympathy for the cause must never become a means to aid and abet terrorism."  (http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-gvosdev101101.shtml)  I returned to this theme in a "Realist" column last fall ("Staying the Course," at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1Issue12/Vol1Issue12Gvosdev.html), but the truth of the matter remains that governments all over the world continue to have their "causes" they are reluctant to abandon.  The Arab world (and many in Europe) view terrorist attacks on civilians as an acceptable form of assymetrical warfare for the Palestinians to engage in.  Some within the U.S. government were prepared to overlook the activities of the Mujahedin-e Khalq because of their hostility to the current regime in Iran.    

All of this makes it difficult to move forward on constructing a regime capable of tackling international terrorism once we have moved beyond Al-Qaeda (which because of the range and depth of its attacks and support for other groups incurred the ire not only of the United States, but of Russia, France, China, India, and so on). 

Yet one is needed.  Unilateral strikes risk destabilizing the international order, which can only exist in conditions of regularity and predictability.  There must be a mechanism whereby states can present evidence of terrorist organizations operating on the territory of other states in order to first seek redress (and failing that, to be able to neutralize the threat before it can strike again, in keeping with the precedent set when Britain moved to intercept Fenian raiders intent on attacking Canada while still on U.S. soil).   This should be a key objective of U.S. policy, and, instead of wrangling over a possible UN resolution that will mouth platitudes about how Syria is wrong to allow terrorist groups to operate on its soil and Israel is wrong to strike at those camps, the events of this past weekend should be a catalyst for the major powers to sit down and begin to think through a system for consultation to deal with the ongoing scourge of terrorism.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.