So, to re-cap the past week or so: the two-state solution is (almost) dead (again) after Bibi’s victory in the Israeli elections, the Americans came off the sidelines in Iraq with airstrikes in support of an offensive to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, Yemen’s President has reportedly fled the country and Saudi Arabia has now launched airstrikes against the Houthi rebels, Syria has dismantled 3 chemical weapons sites, Syria stands accused of continuing to use Chlorine weapons, Canada announced that it won’t bother to ask the Syrian government before attacking ISIS, oh and nine British citizens have reportedly entered Syria to work as medics in IS hospitals.
Spot the odd one out. That didn’t stop the nine medics making the front pages, though.
What is the British government to do about British citizens that are willing to travel to Syria and support ISIS? The Guardian called this “a test for British policy” and I agree, but it is a general policy problem that any state whose citizens get involved in irregular conflicts will have to face. I had a good debate on Twitter with Shashank Joshi regarding his argument that this constituted “material support” for terrorism, although the question he was asked was slightly different to its presentation. As I see it, the problem here is that two norms are in direct conflict with one another: the idea that the British citizens shouldn’t support ISIS, and the humanitarian impulse to save lives.
The key problem with any assessment is the same as most arguments about foreign fighters: we don’t really know what they’re up to except via scraps of information and rumours spread via twitter/instagram/the internet. As I see it, however, there are three ways that they could be involved (as medics): as a standard fighter with some medical expertise, as a dedicated medic working in a battlefield role, as a medic working in a hospital or similar facility. The first case is the easiest – even under international humanitarian law medical personnel can carry a light weapon for personal protection but lose the protection of their status if they act like standard personnel. The second is perhaps the trickiest issue. A battlefield medic would be providing material support, but at the same time, although medical personnel are integral to the conduct of military operations, they are commonly protected from attack precisely because international humanitarian law seeks to preserve the ability for medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded while fighting rages. Even though debate rages about what constitutes “direct participation in hostilities” in non-international armed conflicts, this concept doesn’t include medical aid. Fundamentally, in international law there isn’t anything to prevent a person from pulling wounded people from a battlefield or tending to their wounds.
There is little doubt in my mind that the British government could figure out an argument for making it illegal to go to Syria and provide medical support for ISIS, even though this will be fundamentally a British law for British citizens. The question is, do we want to be seen to criminalise the humanitarian impulse? Will nine medical students really make much of a difference? In terms of narrative it seems a needless own-goal. If these students did go to Syria to heal people instead of kill them, the best thing the British government could do is ignore them and focus on something more important. Throw a dart at a map of the middle east, and it’ll probably land on something that should be a priority.