Bombs don’t help

Says a public administration expert in Syria while negotiating with IS

By Vincent Bongers

“If they need a ‘pink face’, I join the talks”, says Jeffrey Jonkers, a public administration expert from Leiden. His job is to negotiate with IS in Syria: “The politicians say: don’t negotiate with terrorists, but it’s working.”

(De originele Nederlandstalige versie staat hier)
“Ronaldo or Messi? If, at a checkpoint, things take a turn for the worse, I’ll start to chat to a heavily armed guard about football. I couldn’t care less about it, but that question will break the ice. Everyone immediately recognises the names of those players and you can make contact – there’s a connection and after a lot of chat, they’ll let you pass.”
Jeffrey Jonkers (36) read Public Administration in Leiden, was student fraternity Augustinus’s president and currently works for an NGO, the Peaceful Change Initiative. Last week, he returned to Leiden to give a talk on his job. He’s a negotiator. He talks to IS.
He explains a matter he’s working on. “IS troops are situated some ten kilometres from the town of Salamiyah, which is full of Sunnis, opponents of both IS and Assad’s regime, so the government won’t help and the Free Syrian Army isn’t strong enough to stop IS. We set up negotiations with IS about a safe passage for the town’s inhabitants – and it’s working: refugees are heading to safer place, even as we speak.”
He gives another example: “There are 50,000 displaced persons in Qah, a Syrian refugee camp. The Al Nusra Front, a militia with connections to Al Qaida, controls the area and as far as they’re concerned, the camp’s occupants do not necessarily need to survive. They surrounded the camp and cut off its facilities. We eventually managed to negotiate a treaty with Al Nusra and now the camp has power, food and water again.”
But can you actually negotiate with IS? “Politicians are always saying: we don’t negotiate with terrorists – but we do. IS won’t send a commander to the talks, but they’ll look for representatives who have connections in the community. Near Raqqa, which IS have made the capital of their caliphate, there’s a small Christian village. We arranged that the residents were left alone. You have to be lucky, but you also have to grab every opportunity that comes along. In this case, one resident had rebelled against Assad, was sent to prison and while there, had met future IS members. He arranged to speak to a commander and that’s how it was agreed that the villagers didn’t need to flee; they could even sell their farm produce on Raqqa’s market.”
Why is Jonkers invited to the talks? “Syrian activists who have fled to Turkey have set up a network for negotiations at a local level. The group is supported by the British Foreign Office. If they need a ‘pink face’ – a Westerner – I join the talks. But I’m also teaching them negotiation strategies: what can we offer and what not?”
Jonkers describes himself as “fairly down-to-earth”: “I don’t scare easily and that’s why I can cope with this job. While I was doing research for my final dissertation in 2005, I had to dodge bullets when the Israeli army and Palestinians starting shooting at each other. Since then, I’ve been in a war zone somewhere almost constantly.
‘In Afghanistan, I was helping identify civilian victims when that mad pastor in Florida started burning Qurans. I was on a tiny compound in Kandahar and there were a couple of hundred demonstrators outside the gates every day, yelling and building bonfires. That was frightening. When you spend a lot a time in a bunker, you start to wonder whether you’ll ever get out.”
“Sometimes, I take too many risks”, he admits. “It’s just silly to stroll through Aleppo at eleven o’clock at night.” And he’s aware that talks can always break down. “There’s a constant threat of escalation. Sometimes they’ll ring up and say: ‘We’re angry and we’re on our way’; sometimes armed groups turn up. It might seem dangerous but often it’s just a tactic.”
Because loyalties between groups in Syria are forever changing, he faces very diverse challenges. “The Kurds now control the regions in the north of Syria, which were initially controlled by IS. They are good administrators and have introduced a reasonably successful democracy. The problem is the Kurds refuse to allow refugee Arabs to return home because they might be IS members. We helped the Kurds set up a fair screening test: when do you belong to IS? Does it count if you sold goods to that organisation? Or if you sent your kids to an IS school? At a meeting, we managed to convince the Kurds that the latter case shouldn’t be seen as a problem.”
He doubts that the attacks in Paris will influence his work. “It’s tough, but of course we should have expected something along those lines. It will not really affect the way the Islamic State operates in Syria or the way they feel about us.”
But what will happen in Syria? “It will take violence to make peace, although there’s too much emphasis on violence right now. The bombings are not making any difference. The French, Americans and Russians are treating IS like a state, but it isn’t – IS is more flexible. If anyone were to bomb the Dutch Ministry of Defence, we’d have a problem but to IS, a bomb wouldn’t matter because their ministry can be kept in two briefcases.
“It all began as a conflict between Assad and the moderate opposition. There were lots of tiny groups at the time. They’re still building their networks, which makes it easier to negotiate with them. The big problem is how to deal with Al Nusra and IS. Al Nusra doesn’t necessarily want their own state; they want influence and we can work with that. But we can’t do that with IS: it has to be demolished, piece by piece. We’ll only succeed if we can improve living conditions in Syria. We need to weaken IS indirectly by supporting the Kurds. And Damascus needs a government that has the support of most of the population.”
Sometimes during negotiations, Jonkers is reminded of his student days: “It helps to have that typical Leiden gift of the gab: you needed sharp wits for the fierce debates and discussions at Augustinus”, he recalls. “I once thanked one of my most annoying opponents at the fraternity: “Thanks to you, I can stand my ground in discussions in the Middle East.”

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Bombs don’t help

“If they need a ‘pink face’, I join the talks”, says Jeffrey …