A rebel fighter stands near a Turkish tank as it fires towards Guzhe village, northern Aleppo countryside. Photo: REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A rebel fighter stands near a Turkish tank as it fires towards Guzhe village, northern Aleppo countryside. Photo: REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

The US and its rebel proxies in Syria appear to be weaponizing human rights as a tool to legitimize regime change operations.

In Libya, the US invoked Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as a rationale to overthrow the sovereign government under Muammar Gaddafi, and destroyed a country that enjoyed the highest living standard on the African continent prior to US/NATO invasion in 2011. Now this OPEC member is a cauldron of Wahhabi-Salafi terrorism and a weapons bazaar for Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and various international Islamic extremist groups.

With increasing footage of alleged Syrian air force war crimes in Aleppo supplied by the White Helmets — a Syrian civil defense organization created by the US and UK in 2013 — there has been corresponding calls in Washington for a no-fly zone and war against Russia and Syria ostensibly to protect civilians. However, in practice the no-fly zone serves as a form of asymmetric warfare waged by terrorists against an air force.

Asymmetric warfare denotes a weaker force attempting to defeat a stronger foe, and terrorist groups are increasingly resorting to weaponizing humanitarian law to wage legal warfare or “lawfare” as an effective counter-measure against a superior military force.

General Charles Dunlap, former deputy judge advocate general for the US Air Force, describes “lawfare” as the newest feature of 21st century combat, a form of hybrid warfare. He noted how hyper-legalism regarding collateral damage, applied to NATO’s air campaign in the Balkan war, prompted lawyers of the military alliance to effectively become its “tactical commanders.”

Terrorists understand this Achilles heel, and as General Dunlap observed, they are more than ready to exploit humanitarian values to defeat their targets.

For example, Taliban and al-Qaeda’s greatest vulnerability is precision air strikes. In 2008, the Washington Times reported a Taliban fighter lamenting, “Tanks and armor are not a big deal. The fighters are the killers. I can handle everything but the jet fighters.”

As such, they attempt to demonize the air weapon through manipulation of civilian casualties that NATO airstrikes can produce — hiding heavy weaponry in mosques and NGO compounds such as CARE International in hopes of deterring attacks or producing collateral damage media events. Hamas resorted to similar tactics in Gaza against the Israeli air force.

In practice, the no-fly zone in Libya became a form of asymmetric warfare waged by the al-Qaeda linked terrorists — Libyan Islamic Fronting Group (LIFG) – against the Libyan government’s air superiority by contracting US/NATO military forces to ground the Libyan air force.

This in effect protected the terrorists, paved the way for destruction of Libya as a state, and opened the Pandora’s box of refugee crisis and terrorism in the EU that helped prompt Brexit. A repeat of this pattern in Syria would further strengthen al-Qaeda, IS and amplify destabilization of the EU.

Given the increasing number of Asian terrorists mingled with Al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham, Jaish al Islam and other jihadi groups in the Army of Conquest (Jaish al Fatah), this would also destabilize Asia. Indeed, the recent terrorist attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan was conducted by Syria-based Chinese Uyghur jihadists and financed by Al Nusra.

According to a former CIA officer, they also tracked al-Qaeda operatives from Pakistan in South Asia to Syria, who then embedded in the group, so the links between al-Qaeda and Ahrar al Sham are clear — especially since “Ahrar al Sham has had within its senior command structure a number of former al-Qaeda members.”

As such, China is stepping up its counter-terrorism operations both at home and abroad in the Mideast, and how the US utilizes the White Helmets to weaponize international humanitarian/human rights law will have international legal repercussions on how US itself conducts counter-terrorism elsewhere, as well as for Germany, the EU, China, Russia, India and others.

Counter-terrorism and human rights

As the US, UK, France and their Gulf allies are pushing to investigate Syria for war crimes, similar to the push to investigate Israel for war crimes in its 2014 Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza, this is once again shedding light on the need for an international counter-terrorism regime.

The tendency of using law as a means of realizing a military objective, and hijacking the rule of law as another way of fighting, will serve to the detriment of humanitarian values as well as the law itself.

Given this, what should be the international normative consensus on counter-terror tactics? If an NGO area is surreptitiously employed to hide military equipment, and the NGO fails to report this, do they become culpable as aiders and abettors of deceitful conduct which itself is a war crime? Moreover, if civilians volunteer as human shields, do they forfeit their non-combatant immunity?

In order to establish global governance of counter-terrorism, stakeholders such as China, Russia, US, Europe and the broader international community, need to eventually determine at what point a government’s legitimate counter-terror operations and right to self-defense or force protection cross over to become human rights violations, genocide or war crimes.

In instances when terrorists use human shields and abuse international law to unnecessarily handcuff a government when force is required to restore and safeguard human rights generally, what counter-measures does a government have to lawfully defend its freedom of action?

These are questions vexing Syria, Israel, China, Russia and US/NATO as they face the growing reach of terrorist groups such as IS, Al Nusra and its affiliates, Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban, ETIM and TIP that are attempting to blur the line between counter-terrorism and human rights violations.

Christina Lin

Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst. She has extensive government experience working on US national security and economic issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.

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