With Us or a Terrorist: Bush and Bashar’s Holy Wars Against Terrorism

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In a speech about the “War on Terror,” former American President George W. Bush referred to the “crusades” to describe his war against terrorism, recalling the wars waged by the Christian West against Arabs and Muslims in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

The connotation of “crusade” in English is still fairly positive in spite of recent Western scholarly reassessments of these wars, while in the East the term still has strong negative associations.

Moreover, Bush’s “axis of evil” speech strengthened this view since two-thirds of the axis (Iran and Iraq) he condemned were Muslim, and the organizations he classified as “terrorist” during the speech were all Muslim. Bush’s legacy of failure in Iraq, including the loss of the “common will” of Americans, paved the way to a new spirit and direction for US foreign policy, buoyed by the first African-American presidency in the US. The spirit of “change” born in post Bush-era America found its way to the Arab world, which has since then seen more calls for democracy and “change” domestically and internationally.

On the other side, in many of his speeches, Bashar al-Assad asserts that “the issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside.” Al-Assad’s regime insists on attributing the armed opposition in Syria to terrorist groups, which they claim come from the US, Turkey and Gulf nations. Terrorism in Bashar and Bush’s speeches is used to justify violence against civilians and to deceive the public through skewed use of language.

In both cases, citizen journalists succeed in uncovering state terrorism. In Iraq, we all remember the transformative role of Citizen Media and web video in the coverage of the war in Iraq. In April 2004, photos of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were broadcast, causing revulsion and anger throughout the world. The Bush administration had claimed the invasion of Iraq was to liberate Iraqis from tyranny, but the photos of torture and abuse suggested America was not living up to its espoused principles.

Nowadays Syria is attempting to get free and rid of the current regime by connecting citizen journalists who are also activists on the ground in Syria. In addition, they are not only documenting and trying to connect with as many activists as possible; they’re creating and providing possible solutions, specifically pushing for a no fly zone, along with other solutions to resolve this terrible conflict and to ultimately bring the senseless killing to an end as quickly as possible.

Armed conflict in the country is only escalating, and the opposition’s new tactics could be seen as terrorist in their nature but never so when placed in the appropriate context of guerrilla warfare. The nature of the conflicts in Syria, just like the one in Iraq after the American invasion, made the line between opposition and terrorist hard to draw, especially for Westerners, demarcating little more than differences in the ultimate goal for Syrian regime change. The perceptions of the West — and its silence over the bloodshed — in the dogmas of various opposing forces in Syria today could prove to be a major point of contention that will bear sour fruit in the months and years to come, whether or not Bashar al-Assad successfully asserts his authority in the short term.