The militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Isil) have murdered another western captive, Alan Henning. Henning, like his fellow humanitarian worker David Haines, had gone to Syria out of compassion for its people in the midst of a vicious civil war. His sympathy and bravery did not matter to Isil anymore than the pleas for mercy by the Henning and Haines families. Isil beheaded both men as it did the American journalists James Foley and David Sotloff, and it is threatening to do to the same to American aid worker Peter Kassig. The western world appears to be powerless to protect any of these captives.
Kassig’s family, along with those of other hostages including British freelance reporter John Cantlie, are praying their son will survive. No one can be sure how many of the journalists and aid workers who have gone missing in rebel-held areas of Syria are in Isil hands, but it is a fair bet that Isil will threaten many more executions in the months ahead. Isil has not hesitated to behead Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese civilians and captured soldiers, and it uses the public murders as propaganda to recruit jihadists rather than as a negotiating ploy. It has also enslaved, sold and raped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Kurdish-speaking Yazidi women, as the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have reported.
There is no magic formula to bring the hostages home, but Turkey has demonstrated that it can persuade Isil to release captives. Last month, Isil set free the 49 Turkish hostages it kidnapped in Mosul on 11 June this year. Turkey denied that it paid ransom, which may or may not be true. While it attributed the release to a “rescue operation,” there was no evidence of a struggle, which means the “rescue” was more likely diplomatic than military. Turkey’s past support for Islamic fundamentalists in Syria has given it leverage that made ransom irrelevant, because Turkey holds the power to deny Isil access to arms, fighters and equipment from its territory across the border into Syria and Iraq.
When I was in northern Syria last month, Armenian villagers told me they had seen Turkish military vehicles bringing Islamist fighters to the border to conquer Armenian villages in the area of Kessab last March. Turkey is not the only enabler of the Islamist fundamentalists who have kidnapped and murdered Syrians, Iraqis and westerners for more the past three years. Two other middle-east allies of the United States and Britain, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia, funded the groups that became Isil throughout the Syria rebellion against President Bashar al Assad.
American Vice President Joe Biden made an astounding admission to Harvard University’s John F Kennedy Forum last Thursday:
“And what my constant cry was that our biggest problem is our allies – our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends – and I have the greatest relationship with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with – the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
What Biden neglected to say was that America’s allies conducted that policy with the knowledge of the United States, which did nothing to stop it. The weapons supplied to the fanatics were manufactured in the US, and American intelligence in Turkey knew which rebels Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were assisting. Moreover, the moving forces within Isil, including its mercurial leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, were graduates of the American prison system in Iraq, where previously non-political Sunni Muslims became radicals.
For Syrians and Iraqis, the fate of western hostages is a minor issue when so many of them have been murdered, raped and enslaved by Isil. However, the fates of all the hostages, foreign, Arab and Kurdish, may depend on any force that can rescue them or negotiate their freedom. Both courses are fraught with risk, as America’s attempted rescue of James Foley last July proved. Yet something must be done to save them, as something must be done to negotiate an end to the war in Syria. Without peace in Syria, the kidnapping and the beheadings will not stop.