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Islamic State Releases Video Requesting Prisoner Swap With Syrian Government

An unidentified speaker, reportedly talking on behalf of the Syrian soldiers being held captive, says the Islamic State is not "blood thirsty” and that “they want justice."

by Kayla Ruble
Sep 2 2014, 10:05pm

Photo via Storyful/YouTube

Just a day before the Islamic State released a video reportedly showing the beheading of American Journalist Steven Sotloff, the militants who have taken hold in Syria and Iraq issued a video with a different tone requesting a prisoner swap involving Syrian soldiers it has been holding captive.

In a video released on Monday, a group of 11 Syrian soldiers are shown standing together on camera while statement is read by an unidentified speaker — reportedly talking on their behalf — requesting that the Syrian government hand over Islamic State fighters in exchange for the soldiers.

Video reportedly shows Islamic State beheading of American Journalist Steven Sotloff. Read more here.

The Syrian soldiers are said to have been taken as prisoners when the Tabqa air force base in Raqqa was seized at the end of August. Two of the men were reportedly photographed at the time and their pictures were disseminated by Islamic State.

Photos emerged on August 27 of soldiers allegedly held captive after the air base attack. The man at the back-right of this photo is reportedly positioned at the front-left of the video above. Credit: VK/W_Raqqa

"We are the soldiers of the Tabqa military airport, captured by the Islamic State after its men invaded," the statement reads, acknowledging they are prisoners. "We ask our families and relatives to quickly secure our release in any way… otherwise we will be executed by IS."

The video's release falls between the emergence of a video showing the reported beheading of James Foley and Tuesday's release of footage allegedly depicting the beheading of another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, both of which have elicited strong responses from world leaders and media outlets alike.

The Islamic State. Watch here.

"We have to draw a distinction between an offer to swap prisoners with Syrians and broader kidnapping tactics of humanitarian aid workers and journalists," Jacob Stokes, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for New American Study, told VICE News.

With a proper prisoner swap yet to happen since the militants, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), made their break in June, the video brings up interesting questions about the group's tactics and demands. But while it may seem like a sudden twist, it could speak to the group's desired role as a verifiable state. 

According to Stokes, in this case the Islamic State is pursuing actions in the way of a state, something on which the newly established caliphate is focused. He explained that in a war between states, if the idea that ISIS has formed a state is accepted, a prisoner swap would be standard procedure.

"In some ways what you're finding is that the logic of war starts to make sense when you're in this position," he said, explaining that aspects like this are defined in the Geneva conventions and other accords, followed by countries around the world. "Even for a group that aspires to be a state and doesn't sign on to these agreements, logic says, 'hey if we don't kill these Syrian soldiers, we can trade them back.'"

Additionally, Stokes said one of the biggest challenges for the Islamic State at the moment is that, "their calling card is brutality," and this video and accompanying prisoner swap request could be more of an opportunistic shift in tactics.

"They're trying to tow the line between being an extremist group and a state. They have a foot in both worlds and in the meantime there's a lot of brutality," he said.

Beyond requesting a prisoner swap, the video is seemingly trying to put out a narrative that the militant group, which quickly overran parts of Northern Iraq in June, is not the band of ruthless terrorists they're reputed to be. Specifically, the statement said that the Islamic State had not mistreated the men "because they are not blood thirsty." The video message continues saying "they want justice, they want a veritable Islamic state. Not unjustified killing or slaughtering." 

While cautious about over speculating, Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that the timing is interesting since the video has emerged just as the militants are being accused of atrocities, mass graves, and ethnic cleansing in the wake of the siege on the Iraqi town of Amerli. Cordesman said they could be trying to take attention away from the problems that have surfaced in Iraq, noting that this is the kind of war where you can have extreme violence in one area and a more moderate approach just 30 miles away.

Cordesman explained that the Islamic State is currently trying to win over locals, in the narrow realm of Sunni Muslims, but also in the broader realm of fellow Arabs throughout the Middle East. Eventually, he said, you have to decide "how much is terrorism worth as a weapon versus a base for popular support."

While they may be playing public relations games, Stokes said he was doubtful one video requesting a prisoner swap would mean an end to the Islamic State killing Syrian soldiers. Similarly, it's unlikely this request will have broader implications for the Western governments.

"The [request to] exchange prisoners doesn't reassure anyone in the West, or Turkey for that matter, that hostages who are not Arab are going to get the same treatment," Cordesman said. "The Islamic State doesn't seem to behave irrationally, but projecting our values on IS and putting it in our strategic framework, it's a bit speculative."

In general, Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told VICE News that it's challenging to contextualize the Islamic State's entire strategy from one video, and that it's important not to "make mountains out of molehills." 

"It's a mistake to assume a desire for negotiations means a desire to negotiate, sometimes diplomacy is asymmetric war strategy," Rubin said. "The west looks at negotiations as conflict resolution, but on the world stage that might be a minority view point."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter@RubleKB