Putting an end to "violence and terrorism" is how UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi described his effort at the recent Geneva talks. No further clarifications were given, but it is now understood that "violence" is practiced by the forces of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, like Lebanon's Hezbollah, and includes street-to-street combat, shelling of neighborhoods (sometimes with chemical weapons), and throwing of barrel bombs on towns. "Terrorism," meanwhile, is practiced by anti-Assad armed groups and includes street war, chopping off heads, and pretending that it’s all happening in the 7th century when Muslim armies invaded vast lands around the globe.
It is hard to tell the difference between the two kinds of brutality, except that Assad and Hezbollah are much more disciplined, well-trained, and better armed.
However, it remains strange how the anti-Assad forces, mostly Sunni, continue to be tagged as “terrorists” while Hezbollah, which is formally listed as a terrorist organization in both the United States and Europe, seems recently to have lost this label.
Not only has Hezbollah been classified terrorist for a long time, but there are also close to half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions that call on the party to disarm. The UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has indicted five from Hezbollah's rank-and-file, while Bulgaria, Cyprus, and a few other countries have convicted Hezbollah militants of either committing acts of terror or of planning them.
Yet, despite all the UN resolutions and world verdicts against Hezbollah, many now seem to have ceased calling the party a “terrorist” one.
To understand this trend, one would have to trace the recent history of the usage of the word “terrorism,” which by the turn of the century was understood as the use of violence by non-state actors, or armed groups that have no address, groups that hit and hide and are not accountable before any government.
The Palestine Liberation Organization, Hezbollah, Hamas, and several other groups all fit that description. States, however, were never classified as such, and despite all the Arab efforts to coin the term "state terror" to describe Israel, the label has not taken hold.
Not only was Israel never described as a "terrorist state," but brutal regimes like those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Ali Khamenei in Iran, Moammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Hafez al-Assad in Syria were never called “terrorists,” either. At best, these rogue regimes were described as "state sponsors of terrorism" for their role in funding, training, arming, and facilitating the activity of armed groups.
But then came Barack Obama, whose team turned these definitions – and history – upside down. The word terrorism was replaced by "extreme violence." In practice, even non-state actors – like Hezbollah and the Taliban – stopped being viewed simply as terrorists.
In today’s Washington, any non-state actor that has a defined chain of command, with whom the world can talk, is not a "terrorist group" anymore.
In the context of Syria, Hezbollah is believed to be a disciplined paramilitary force with known leaders. If there were ever a political settlement, it is assumed that Hezbollah will abide by it. On the rebel side, the problem is that many of the armed groups have no defined leadership or regional patrons that can make them abide by any deal. Rebels groups – like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – are unpredictable.
Hezbollah, Nusra, and ISIS are all clearly violent groups. But because these two Al-Qaeda affiliates are not as well-funded or -organized as Hezbollah and Assad’s military and paramilitary groups, only they are being labeled as “terrorists.”
Since former President George Bush launched the global War on Terror in 2001, America has changed. Obama, however, has hit many reset buttons. He forgot that Hezbollah killed over 200 marines in the 1980s, or that the party deployed Ali Musa Daqduq, who trained and participated in the killing of American troops in Iraq and is now back home in Beirut.
In Obama’s view, let bygones be bygones, and Hezbollah is most welcome to join any political settlement, whether in Syria or Lebanon, even if it never abides by UN Security Council resolutions, disarms, or hands over those indicted by the STL.
As far as Obama is concerned, the only problem Lebanon faces today is the spillover from Syria. Solve the Syria riddle and Hezbollah will sheathe its sword and Lebanon, an ally and friend according to the American president, will return to normal.
All of this should teach Sunni terror groups a lesson: you can practice violence outside of any state mandate. You can fight in Syria, even if you aren’t Syrian (Hezbollah is Lebanese), just make sure that you organize your ranks into a defined hierarchy with known leaders, even if these leaders live in bunkers buried deep underground. If these armed factions manage to do that, they might be relabeled mere “violent groups.”
Then Brahimi might find it easier comparing oranges to oranges.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain