After months of being targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes, losing ground in Iraq and suffering defeat in a weeks-long assault to capture the Syrian border town of Kobani, is the Islamic State flagging and putting out feelers to see if a truce might be possible? Or is it just seeking to sow confusion in the ranks of its opponents and to undermine their unity and resolve by raising the idea of negotiations?
Intriguingly, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, floated the idea on Tuesday of a negotiated truce in the latest issue of the militants’ English-language magazine Dabiq, via an article written by one of the group’s remaining Western hostages, British photojournalist John Cantlie.
Ever since the execution of other Western hostages this summer, Cantlie—who was captured in Syria with American reporter James Foley in 2012—has been used for propaganda purposes by the Islamic State, both by writing for Dabiq and fronting propaganda videos.
In an article entitled “Paradigm Shift,” in the eighth and latest issue of the magazine, Cantlie notes in the mocking style his captors presumably have ordered him to adopt that Western leaders appear to have accepted now that the Islamic State is like no previous terrorist organization, and that it is a country with all the attributes of a bona fide state—from a police force and schools to a functioning court system and supposed currency.
“At some stage, you’re going to have to face the Islamic State as a country, and even consider a truce,” he argues. Acknowledging that it is “going to take some swallowing of pride,” he asks rhetorically, “What’s the alternative, launch airstrikes in half-a-dozen countries at once?” “He adds, “They’ll have to destroy half the region if that’s the case.”
This isn’t the first time that Cantlie—who has been used mercilessly by his captors as a conduit for their fear campaigns and has been maneuvered into acting as a champion of the jihadist cause—has offered an argument for the futility of the West’s strategy against the militants and called for Washington to reconsider how it approaches the Islamic State.
In the fifth issue of the magazine, Cantlie, obviously on the orders of his captors, ridiculed Western governments for acting “like a robot that is stuck on a loop…Military action doesn’t work, what about negotiations?”
According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Mideast expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, those remarks about the West acting robotically appear in hindsight to foreshadow the current, more developed argument about a truce.
So is this a genuine offer, an invitation for talks?
“The talk of a truce I don’t make much of,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “I take it much more as a tactic designed to break the morale of their opponents and to give credence to antiwar voices in the West.”
He adds: “ISIS is very attuned to the different audiences it wants to influence and fairly effective in how it does that, and here, I think, it is seeking to appeal to those in the West who have unease about the military action that is being undertaken taken with the aim of eroding the enemies’ political will.”
Cantlie has certainly been used in the past by the militants to offer, in video and written commentary, a counter-narrative to Western audiences, one that seeks to sap the morale of the West, pour scorn on Western media reports and legitimize the caliphate announced in the summer by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In March, a former hostage, Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, disclosed that during his time in captivity, Cantlie twice tried to escape and suffered “weeks and weeks” of torture as a result. Cantlie’s punishment for trying to flee the extremists was so harsh that the journalist almost drowned during one waterboarding session.
Espinosa was held by the Islamic militants between December 2013 and March of last year.
In Tuesday’s article the 43-year-old Cantlie continues to play to the war-weariness of Americans and Britons, urging them to understand the foolishness of yet another U.S.-led military intervention in the Middle East. And he insists that the Islamic State cannot be defeated militarily, quoting for effect General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying on television recently, “There’s no military-only solution to [ISIS].”
He writes: “From the toothless roaring of Obama’s address to the nation on 10 September, in which he declared that the Islamic State ‘is a terrorist organization, pure and simple,’ it would seem that some of his closest advisors, many figures in the rest of the NATO world and the media in general are not convinced by such a simplistic description, although ‘terrorism’ is undoubtedly one of the tactics, amongst many, adeptly employed and advanced by the Islamic State in its jihād.”
“Is a truce even realistic?” he asks. “Right now, it’s too early,” he answers. But he predicts: “The scene is just being set for a big operation against the Islamic State to be executed by Iranian militias (AKA the Iraqi army) backed by the U.S.. But when that fails because Shiite militiamen are afraid of being burnt alive, when special forces operations skyrocket in an effort to make up for what the Iraqi army cannot achieve, and when the mujāhidīn start beheading Western troops, then every option is going to be on the table, and fast. A truce will be one of those options.”
As if to underline the significance of the talk of a truce, and presumably to ensure it is understood as being endorsed by the Islamic State’s leadership, there is an editor’s note to the Cantlie article, saying while no truce can be permanent with infidels, a temporary one could be possible. “A halt of war between the Muslims and the kuffār can never be permanent, as war against the kuffār is the default obligation upon the Muslims only to be temporarily halted by truce for a greater sharia interest,” the anonymous editor announces.
Certainly there is nothing else in the magazine to suggest that the floating of a truce is being prompted by fears of defeat. The tone in all the articles is one of triumphalism. The militants bray about the bloody acts of terrorism that affiliates pulled off last week in Yemen and Tunisia that left 160 people dead and at least 300 wounded—bombings that have jeopardized the economic recovery (and therefore) the political stability of Tunisia, just across the water from Europe and probably set Yemen on a death spiral of Shia-Sunni violence.
And there is sharp criticism in Dabiq of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, for cooperating with moderate and Islamist rebels seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Those attacks are significant—until recently there were signs that ISIS and al-Nusra were seeking behind-the-scenes to reach some kind of working accommodation and to bury their rivalry. That deal-making appears now to be over.