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Geopolitics

In Syria, The 'Stockpiling' Of Foreign Hostages

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio SJ, founder of the Community al-Khalil in Deir Mar Musa, Syria, among a growing number of hostages in Syria
Father Paolo Dall'Oglio SJ, founder of the Community al-Khalil in Deir Mar Musa, Syria, among a growing number of hostages in Syria
Ahmet Insel

Syria is an apocalypse: dozens of disparate armed groups clash, alliances change weekly, the death toll has reached 100,000, and some two million Syrians have fled the country. Meanwhile, all sides are trying to gain an edge before the second round of Geneva talks to be held next month.

Indeed, a recent increase in the number of kidnapped foreigners seems to be part of the strategy of some to sit at the table with more aces in the hole. Especially the jihadist organizations, which are supported by Saudi Arabia and some of its allies. They are constantly adding to a hostage stockpile, with the thinking that foreigners can be useful someday as a bargaining chip.

After Syrian citizens, it is foreign journalists who are the most sought-after targets. By the end of October 2013, an estimated 25 foreign journalists in Syria were missing or believed to be taken hostage. The list of abducted journalists is followed by a growing number of religious figures, including the Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was kidnapped in July while acting as a negotiator between jihadist organizations, as well as clerics from the Antakya Orthodox Patriarchate Aleppo Metropolitan and the Aleppo Assyrian Orthodox Metropolitan.

Fear and silence

According to observers, the rate of abductions is approaching the level of the Lebanese civil war, which has lasted 15 years. The business of abducting people in Syria has transformed into a veritable “hostage industry.” At first, it was the government forces or the Free Syrian Army who were taking hostages. But these days it’s the jihadist organizations, notably the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, that are the main actors.

One particular factor about the hostages in Syria is that the abductors tend not to seek any particular political or financial demands for their return. Every once in a while, and it takes a long while, they will announce that a certain hostage is in good health. Otherwise, it seems as though the governments, the media and the families of the hostages foremost, prefer silence.

There is a general impression that the jihadist organizations are in contact with officials but are not willing to negotiate for the hostages’ releases. One Syrian journalist said the approach is as if the jihadist organizations are “stockpiling” hostages because they will be useful for them someday. Reports claim that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is collecting hostages by taking them from other groups of abductors.

Observers first noticed the uptick in Syrian abductions in the summer of 2012, with the kidnapping of independent U.S. journalist Austin Tice. It is not known who is holding him or if he is still alive. A Dutch and a British journalist, who were kidnapped at a jihadist organization camp near the Turkish border almost at the same time, were released by the unexpected intervention of the Free Syrian Army. Some Turkish journalists were also kidnapped and released during this period. Meanwhile, there is no news about the Palestinian journalist Bashar Kadumi, who was captured with Turkish colleagues. Abductions of foreign journalists increased further last fall, notably in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border, in areas controlled by international or local jihadist organizations.

Naturally, not all the abductees are foreigners. Clan leaders, merchants and local tradesmen are also common victims of kidnappings in Syria. It is very hard to keep track of who is abducting who. But the kidnappings of three Spanish journalists in September clearly showed that it is impossible for the journalists to operate in northern Syria, except for the areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party and its allies.

It is nothing new that journalists or humanitarian aid workers become victims of the conflicts they are following. Since March 2011, 23 foreign and 58 local journalists have been killed in Syria. There are 35 journalists in Syria who are either missing or in the hands of the jihadists. The number of lost or kidnapped local journalists is unknown.

Is it not meaningful that the world’s despots fear the honest and brave work of journalists?

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