A British teacher who claims he’s vehemently opposed to ISIS, repulsed by their practices and is equally opposed to the brutal Assad regime is threatened by a UK court with life imprisonment. In the shifting sands of strategic alliances within Syria and the wider region, the implication of his argument is that just as Western powers initially made the error of backing anyone opposed to Assad – including those forces that eventually became ISIS – so he, too, made a similar mistake. Whatever the truth or outcome of this case, it serves to highlight a number of serious legal disparities…
Jamshed Javeed, a father and schoolteacher from Manchester, is being tried in the UK courts, charged with making preparations to travel to Syria to provide resources to ISIS. Javeed has pleaded guilty to these charges – which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment – but points out in his defence that at the time he was making these preparations the anti-Assad forces he had intended to support were also supported by the US and its allies. However, the court heard that Javeed’s family, worried about his safety had tried to stop him from travelling to Syria by taking and hiding his passport.
In its zeal to overthrow dictators or destabilise authoritarian regimes the West has displayed a tendency to back the wrong forces, with Libya and Tunisia both now ruled by fundamentalists who were initially resourced by the UK, France and the USA. The British Government also has a mixed record in its relations with Syria for there were occasions when British Intelligence appeared to be working not against but with Assad – an example of moral expediency in contradistinction to the moral absolutism it demands of British citizenry.
Legally, the bottom line is that there is nothing to prevent anyone in Britain from offering their services to a foreign armed force, providing that armed force is not officially at war with Britain. Hence, over the years there have been multiple examples of mercenaries as well as non-remunerated combatants supporting regime change, particularly in Africa and Central America. Mark Thatcher, the son of Margaret Thatcher, was famously part of a 2004 failed coup d’etat in Equatorial Guinea. In the 1980s US mercenaries, with the support of the US Government, provided armed support to anti-Sandanistan Contras in Nicaragua.
Governments have always been selective if not myopic about how they approve or disapprove support by individuals for foreign conflicts. In the latter half of the 1930s hundreds of Britons joined the International Brigade to fight the anti-fascists in Spain, but on their return to the UK many of these freedom fighters – apart from famous ones, such as George Orwell – were interned as Britain was not officially at war with Spain.
Over the last couple of months, within the context of a climate of fear and with the horrendous murders by ISIS of journalists and aid workers as well as evidence of people travelling to Syria to offer either armed support or humanitarian aid to those involved directly or indirectly in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, some countries have introduced legal penalties that are now being tested out in the courts. But these penalties may be flawed. For example, it is unclear – in the purely legal sense – as to what constitutes war as opposed to conflict that is deemed terrorism. And then there is the matter of who decides these differences: the UN or the participant countries in a war or a conflict. These legalities are important in that they directly affect movements of persons from one country to another, how humanitarian aid is provided and by whom, and the kind of evidence required for charges being made in relation to supporting terrorism. The lack of clarification is causing widespread confusion, particularly within the Muslim community.
In Britain the government has threatened to arrest any British citizen returning to the UK from Syria, to confiscate their passports, and to arrest anyone who offers aid to dissident organisations in Syria (all resistance groups, or just ISIS and its allies?). The terms ‘radicalised’ and ‘extremism’ are bandied around by government spokespersons and mainstream media, but are not helpful: they are loaded terms, have subjective meaning and no legal standing.
Meanwhile some European countries – e.g. Denmark – have adopted a more measured approach in how they deal with those individuals who offer support to non-government forces in Syria or to those returning from that country. Some individuals, for example, may have gone to the region to provide humanitarian aid, or to support the Free Syrian Army (which the USA and the UK still supports); others may have gone to support ISIS but realised their mistake and so returned to dissuade others from making the same mistake.
Finally, consider this question… If ISIS is eventually – and hopefully – defeated and the Kurds, say, consequently take their fight forward to establish an autonomous Kurdish region, will those ethnic Kurds living in Britain who then offer support to their families and comrades in the Middle-East be perceived as brave freedom fighters, or will they, in order that the Turkish and Iraqi governments are appeased, be labelled as terrorists?