December 14, 2016, witnessed a surprising unfolding of events in Syria, with the Assad forces declaring a victory over the rebel groups in Eastern Aleppo. There were mixed scenes of misery and jubilation on the social and electronic media, with majority of the social media focused on the alleged brutality of Russian and Assad forces killing innocent women and children in the city. On the global front, the US and Russian envoys to the UN also traded barbs at each other. The US tried to shame Russia for supporting Assad and killing Syrians, whereas Russia accused the US of supporting and nourishing non state actors, such as ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. With the complicated war fronts and intra-state conflicts in modern times, especially in South Asia and Middle East, there remains a void on defining violent fringe groups, commonly known as Violent Non State Actors, or VNSAs.
Where Afghanistan’s commonly known VNSAs are the Taliban, Pakistan’s NSAs include Tehrik i Taliban and armed groups based in FATA, Balochistan and South Punjab. In international arena, Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL) are the most talked-about VNSAs currently. Now what makes the whole concept of NSAs interesting is how one party can see them as illegitimate groups, whereas the other party see them more on the lines of having a legitimate right to take up arms against the state. For the sake of understanding, one can assume that VNSAs, irrespective of the circumstances, are never to be backed by a legitimate state. Yet, there remains a major dilemma on who defines the legitimacy of VNSAs in current global politics.
The VNSA dilemma has taken to the fore since the Syrian war started, with countless groups, all claiming to be legitimate representatives of Syrian people, aiming to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The US government, over the course of Obama presidency, has openly supported most of these groups calling for Assad to leave. The Free Syrian Army, which clearly falls under the category of VNSAs, was the prime beneficiary of America’s political and financial support over the past few years. Where on one hand the US government has called for “respect for humanitarian values” and asked the Assad regime not to kill its own people, the same US government has provided the means for groups like ISIS and FSA to flourish.
US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard – who is also a member of Obama’s Democratic Party – recently called on the US government to cease its support for Al Qaeda, ISIS and other affiliated groups. Gabbard also blamed America’s Gulf allies, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, of supporting ISIS and fuelling the raging spiral of militancy in the Middle East. Gabbard’s revelations didn’t come as surprise to many, especially those who remembered the June 2015 collapse of a terrorism trial against Bherlin Gildo, a Swedish national, in London. Gildo’s lawyers had then claimed that he was fighting for the same group that was supported by the west, especially the UK and USA. It was revealed that the British government was providing active lethal and non-lethal support to the VNSAs in Syria.
The irony of the matter is that both the UK and USA have criticised countries trying to bring VNSAs on the table in Afghanistan. In a recent development in neighbouring Afghanistan, the government in Kabul tried to take the Russian ambassador, Alexander Mantytskiy, to the task for his country’s alleged reaching out to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan media, as well as the government, called Russian transgression a deadly game for the region. With the US still controlling most of the policy affairs in Kabul, such a backlash for Russian actions was expected. Yet, the situation presented the same dilemma of who defines which VNSAs are to be negotiated with?
The western media discourse is also helping little when it comes to solving the complex puzzle of understanding the VNSAs. The FSA, and other anti-Assad groups, even with their evident attacks against the Syrians, have been commonly tagged as “moderate rebels”. On the other hand, any group, which is even remotely associated with Iran and Iran, and supports the Assad regime comes under scrutiny and criticism. Both the warring sides in Syria have had their fair share in inflicting misery upon the Syrians. Yet, the one-sidedness of the western media, when it comes to branding these groups, is an epitome of misinformation and partisan reporting of events.
If countries like China, Russia, Iran or even Pakistan try reaching out to VNSAs, it is only seen as an implicit support for militant groups and militancy. Whereas countries supporting groups such as the FSA use the argument of aiding the “moderate rebels” against a tyrant. This dichotomy points towards the root of security problems currently faced by the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. Until and unless there is a consensus on the form, function and agenda of VNSAs, establishing peace would always remain a distant and unassailable proposition.
The author, Farooq Yousaf, is a Research Fellow and a Programme Consultant at CRSS. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Australia.