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Eric Harroun, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Right to Fight

April 17, 2013


[photo from Eric Harroun’s Facebook]

by Andrew Parker

I was deeply disappointed to hear that Eric Harroun, an American citizen who fought against the Assad regime in Syria, has been charged for his actions there in federal court.

I cannot help but feel some personal responsibility for contributing to the dialogue that may have led some to the decision to go fight in Syria. I am not so vain as to believe my previous article on the subject was a deciding factor for anybody, much less Mr. Harroun in particular, but even the few receptive comments it garnered warrant this personal apology:

I continue to believe that individuals have a right to participate in foreign conflicts in which their country of origin is not involved on a personal, moral basis, and indeed should if they are willing and able. Eric Harroun has yet to be found guilty for his actions (and if he is, he faces anything from 30 years in prison to the death penalty), but simply the hardship of being on trial and receiving such unwanted public scrutiny and judgement will dramatically alter his life. As such, I sympathize with Mr. Harroun’s predicament. This action by the federal government to prosecute Mr. Harroun is one that I could not have predicted, and actually anticipated would not happen based on my research into the issue for my article. Indeed, the linked New York Times report seems to indicate that nobody else could have predicted this outcome either:

“Never, to my knowledge, has the U.S. government charged a U.S. citizen for fighting with a group aligned with U.S. interests.”

(For a thorough examination of Mr. Harroun’s history and the details of the case, I recommend this article from Foreign Policy.)

In light of the situation, I can only offer to others (I’m looking at you, Australians, but really any Westerners) thinking of engaging in the Syrian conflict against Assad to be cautious about who they associate with and use discretion in promoting or sharing their activities. The FBI and US government’s position on Mr. Harroun is not only perverse and shameful, but also displays great ignorance to how (and by whom) the Syrian civil war is being conducted. The charge of a rocket-propelled grenade – a weapon Mr. Harroun as a former Army private must have had some fleeting familiarity with – being a weapon of mass destruction is ludicrous, considering how ubiquitous the system is in Syria and how critical it is to the rebels’ success. It is as if the government is saying:

“Yes, you may fight in Syria, so long as you go up against Assad’s tanks with guns only. If you dare use something effective, you will be treated a terrorist and a traitor.”

As for Mr. Harroun’s brief and arguably unintentional contact with Jabhat al-Nusra, there are many important issues to consider. There is the tendency in the public discourse for any group of bearded men with guns to be painted with the same broad brush as al-Qaeda. Though the Nusra Front in Syria and al-Qaeda in Iraq may be generally aligned in their ideologies (and there has been no merger, despite the latter’s insistence), there is a crucial difference between them which creates a gap as far as how the United States forms policy toward them. This is precisely the difference addressed on this site before; some groups that might be called ideological jihadists are actually motivated by some legitimate grievance. Similarly, Al-Nusra seems to have a primarily domestic agenda, and anti-American language is based on perceived collusion between Assad and the United States, due to a lack of American assistance.

Of course, if the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is the long-term goal of the United States, al-Nusra’s expressed desire for rigid Islamic law in Syria may prove an obstacle. But considering their demonstrated abilities fighting the Assad regime, they should not be immediately dismissed. Even the Western-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has expressed that al-Nusra should not be blacklisted so. As such, the policy of promoting more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army to limit al-Nusra’s influence is appropriate for long-term strategy, but seeing as the short-term goal of the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power is a common one, the views and needs of the moderate elements should be taken into consideration. In reality, al-Nusra’s current influence is overstated; despite their military efficacy, they compose only a small fraction of the overall armed opposition movement. Other brigades in Syria with an Islamist bent have even rejected alliance with al-Qaeda explicitly. Thus in my view, the possibility of Syria becoming a religious civil war between Islamist and moderate elements or even a safe-haven for al-Qaeda is no more likely than in Libya. There will undoubtedly be problems and violence to some unknowable degree, but the choice is between that possibility or the continuation of the Assad regime. With the latter outcome completely unacceptable, the risks of the former must be taken.


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