If negotiating with IS can save some lives, why don't we do it?

Published September 29th, 2014 - 06:59 GMT

By: Robert Fisk

He’s offered to do a deal with Isis. No, not David Cameron. Not Obama, of course. I’m talking about Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader. He’s demanding that the Lebanese government swap Islamist prisoners for 21 soldiers and policemen held by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra.

In case you had forgotten – or just missed the story, because these were Lebanese men, not Westerners – I should add that one of the soldiers was shot in the head. Two were beheaded. On video, of course. So their families could see their decapitation in the comfort of their home.

So let us be clear about this. The Lebanese army, the only serious institution in the country, was ambushed last August in the Sunni town of Arsal on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Arsal is both a town and a refugee camp, and a home to Isis – mortal enemies, as we journos like to say, of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – which is why Jumblatt will not be condemned by Messrs Cameron or Obama. After all, Cameron and Obama are bombing Isis, aren’t they? But they also want to overthrow Assad, don’t they? Problem.

Now, Jumblatt is a generous guy – and why wouldn’t he be when the families of the 21 still missing soldiers and cops pleaded with him to tell the Lebanese government to exchange their sons and husbands and brothers for imprisoned Islamists? Jumblatt’s spokesman announced that the government “cannot negotiate under the edge of a knife”. But we all know what that means. You can.

And I’m struck by how different the Lebanese are from the Brits. This morning, the families of the 21 soldiers and policemen plan to pitch tents in front of the homes of government ministers. Yesterday, they blocked roads across Lebanon. At least one newspaper has claimed that the government is killing its own soldiers by refusing to negotiate.

Prisoners held in Roumieh jail north of Beirut for their part in fighting the army in 2007 in the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared have still not been tried. Isis wants them freed. Interesting. Because they belonged to a group called Fatah al-Islam and were – at the time – allegedly sent into Lebanon with the permission of the Syrian authorities. Is Fatah al-Islam really Isis? Did Isis exist in 2007 – seven years ago?

But just so we remember that the Lebanese are human, that they are just like us, here is the text of a message that Lance Corporal Sulieman Dirani of the Lebanese army sent to his family – courtesy of Isis, of course – in which he called upon his relatives to protest on the streets of Lebanon: “I call on the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese state to work with conscience and to have sympathy with our parents and mothers and consider us their sons. I call on them to see how our mothers and fathers are sleeping in the streets with no one feeling for them or showing any interest in the matter.”

And maybe these soldiers will live. The Lebanese government has one tough man who deals with kidnapped civilians. He’s called Abbas Ibrahim, a brave man who used to walk, unarmed, into the Ein el-Helweh Palestinian camp in Sidon to talk to Osama bin Laden’s men. He’s now head of the Lebanese “General Security”. And yes, he is a general. He organised the freeing of Christian nuns held by the Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian town of Yabroud. Many others owe their life to this man. It’s not his courage I’m talking about. It’s the fact that the Lebanese government is prepared to talk to the bad guys. We don’t do that, of course. But why not?

Perfectly reasonable, respectable governments swap prisoners. Take Israel. It hands over Hezbollah fighters for just a few captured Israeli soldiers. It’s done this many times. Nobody criticises the Israeli government. David Cameron certainly doesn’t. All over the Middle East, captives are freed for other captives. The release of lords and seigneurs and soldiers in return for other captives goes back to the time of the Crusades.

But there are other problems in Lebanon. A third of the population is now Syrian. And the military are deeply concerned that Isis is inside the country. Not just in Arsal. But in the south of Lebanon, too. Syrian refugees are now making their way into the country from Shebaa, close to the Israeli border. In fact, part of Shebaa is claimed by Israel – although maps from the old French mandate suggest the land is inside occupied Syria. But the Israelis must have been concerned to hear that a new slogan has been added to the walls of Hasbaya, a small and beautiful town just north of Shebaa. It calls for a future Islamic State in Lebanon.






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