The rebel attack last week on a convoy of Syrian regime troops in Iraq was an act of "terrorism" because the Syrian troops were "non-combatants," the State Department said Monday.
An al Qaeda affiliated group has claimed responsibility for the attack on a Syrian military convoy in Iraq last week that resulted in the death of 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. At Monday's State Department press briefing, outgoing spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the attack was an act of terrorism because the Syrian troops were not actively engaged in a firefight when they were attacked and because the attackers used "terrorist tactics."
"Well, let me first condemn the attack on the convoy. Any kind of attack like this, any kind of terrorism like this is something that we should condemn," Nuland said.
While there is no single agreed-upon definition of the word "terrorism," the U.S. government's own code of federal regulations defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
Reporters in the briefing noted that no civilians were targeted and that the rebels are engaged in all-out war with the Syrian regime, but Nuland held firm.
"Again, any time you attack noncombatants in this way -- and the techniques were obviously terrorist tactics -- we're going to call it what it is," she said.
Last December, the State Department designated the al-Nusra Front, a conglomeration of rebel groups with some ties to al Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist organization. But Nuland said that it was the circumstances of the attack, not the identity of the attackers, that made it an act of terrorism.
"Well, it obviously depends on the circumstances -- whether they were trying to defend themselves against enemy fire -- but we've been pretty clear about calling out attacks against folks who are not in the middle of a firefight all the way through this from both sides," she said.
Nuland said the State Department believes the Syrian troops had fled the fighting and sought medical treatment in Iraq. They were being returned to Syria when their convoy was ambushed using "terrorist tactics."
"So, it was not the same circumstance that the rebels have confronted when they are trying to defend the population from Syrian regime attack," she said.
One reporter pointed out that the United States routinely targets and kills members of various groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are not physically engaged in the fight at the time they are targeted. Nuland declined to comment on the perceived double standard.
"Again, it depends on the circumstances," she said.
Nuland also declined to confirm or deny a report by the German magazine Der Spiegel that Americans are training Syrian anti-regime forces in Jordan.
"I have nothing for you on that," she said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.