Is negotiating with ISIS an option?

To negotiate with ISIS would mean handing over large sums of money that may be used to attack the very countries from whence the money came.
Sunday 24/02/2019
A glimmer of hope. A Syrian man lights a candle in front of a portrait of Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio during a vigil calling for his release at the St. Joseph Church in Beirut.  (AP)
A glimmer of hope. A Syrian man lights a candle in front of a portrait of Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio during a vigil calling for his release at the St. Joseph Church in Beirut. (AP)

Reports have surfaced that three foreigners held by the Islamic State (ISIS) after disappearing in Syria several years ago may be alive. This raises the question of how or even whether to negotiate their release. It raises complex strategic and moral dilemmas.

The Times newspaper in London reported that ISIS fighters in Al-Baghuz Fawqani on the Iraqi-Syrian border may attempt to negotiate the handover of foreign hostages to secure their own safe passage out of the besieged district.

There are reports the Italian priest, Paolo Dall’Oglio, who went missing in Raqqa in July 2013, British photographer John Cantlie, who was kidnapped in November 2012 and until 2016 appeared in ISIS propaganda videos, and an unnamed Western humanitarian aid worker may all still be alive. Should the West negotiate their return by any means possible?

Over the course of the Syrian war, some countries quietly chose to pay for the safe return of their citizens captured by ISIS and other jihadist groups. More than a dozen Japanese, Italian, French and other European journalists and aid workers are alive today because millions of dollars were handed over to terrorists.

However, no Western government has openly admitted to making such payments. There’s a strong argument that paying ransom saves individual lives. Others say it can be deeply damaging to countries and their governments in the long run.

Clearly, negotiating with ISIS, a group that desires notoriety more than acclaim, is laden with risk. There is good reason the US and UK governments refuse to pursue that avenue. Negotiation with ISIS would be considered highly controversial and politically damaging.

More important, it would set a dangerous precedent. To negotiate with ISIS would mean handing over large sums of money — estimated at about $3 million in the case of each European captive — that may be used to attack the very countries from whence the money came. It would also incentivise international terrorist groups, petty criminals and anyone in between to kidnap Western citizens.

Finally, there’s the fact ISIS has unleashed an unprecedented and sustained wave of terror across Europe where it continues to be a formidable, hidden foe.

That said, research suggests refusing to pay ransom can be just as damaging. A 2017 policy paper by the New America think-tank states: “There is strong evidence to suggest that a no-concessions policy (as pursued by the US and UK) puts hostages at greater risk once abducted. And although ransom payments have undoubtedly provided large sums of money to terrorist groups, for a group like [ISIS], kidnapping Westerners is only a minor source of revenue.”

Western countries and officials have in the past succeeded with indirect negotiations with the Taliban, FARC and even al-Qaeda for the release of hostages and on other sensitive issues. Take, for example, the fact that negotiations and dialogue have helped create a scenario in which senior Taliban leaders work out of an office in Qatar not far from the largest US military base in the Middle East.

In the context of the Syrian conflict, however, negotiation would mean something quite different. It would save the lives of hostages, some held captive for more than half a decade, and would consequently represent a singular and significant cause for celebration.

The Syrian war has produced nothing but accounts of cruelty, brutality and destruction. Fuelled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad through its release of hundreds of hardened jihadists from prison in 2011, the war produced one of the darkest chapters in contemporary regional history but as it now comes to a close, working to negotiate the release of detainees is an avenue the West might wonder about.

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