There’s something faintly surreal about today’s conviction of a British-Asian man for going to fight with rebel groups against the Assad regime in Syria. The British government over the past three years has pursued a moral crusade against Assad, describing his government as ‘evil’ and providing funding and materials to the rebel groups waging war against him; yet when a British citizen effectively takes this moral crusade at face value and takes up arms against Assad, he’s charged with terrorism. When does inciting war against Assad cross the line from being supposedly good foreign policy to being terrorism? When Cameron and Co. say so?
Mashudur Choudhury from Portsmouth was one of five Brits who last October travelled to Syria to train and eventually fight with al-Qaeda-inspired rebel groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the most extreme organisations. The other four men are still there. Choudhury returned at the end of October last year and was promptly arrested at Gatwick airport and charged with conduct in preparation of terrorist acts. At his trial, it was revealed that he had suggested that the British men who went to Syria should set up their own fighting unit – called the al-Britani Brigade of Bangladeshi Bad Boys – and that he had described the opportunity to learn sniper and battlefield skills as ‘sick’ (as in good). Now this seeming fantasist, who is thought to have returned from Syria because he was made scared by the realities on the ground, has become the first Brit charged with terror offences in relation to Syria.
What mixed messages British officialdom is sending. It condemns Choudhury and yet it has spent the years since 2011, when the rebellion against Assad started, telling anyone who would listen that Assad’s regime has, in William Hague’s words, ‘lost legitimacy’ and, in David Cameron’s words, is ‘evil’. Britain also helped to hand-pick the Syrian National Council and effectively gave this collection of disaffected Syrian military men, oligarchs and academics its blessing to wage war on illegitimate Assad. The British government also pumped millions of pounds into rebel fighter groups in 2012 and 2013, providing them with ‘non-lethal’ but still war-useful materials such as radio equipment and satellite devices. Meanwhile, vast swathes of the British media, especially those iPad imperialists who love nothing more than agitating for action against evils overseas, expressed constant ‘revulsion’ against Assad and said ‘it is important to add weight to our moral impulse’ - that is, to use military might to show just how morally disturbed we are by Assad’s evil. How, precisely, is Choudhury’s trek to Syria any different to this desire to ‘add weight to one’s moral impulse’? He was doing just that, adding weight to his moralism, yet he’s criminalised for it while our leaders and the iPad imperialists were cheered for their militarisation of their childish moral outlooks.