BEIRUT — The fates of dozens of missing Western journalists and aid workers may be in the balance as fighting rages between Syrian rebels and their onetime al Qaida-linked allies from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
At least 10 missing foreigners are thought to have been held by the group in its strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo provinces, where the group has been battling to maintain its hold for the past five days.
But with the exception of a Turkish journalist who was released, none of the missing foreigners had been accounted for as of Tuesday evening.
“This is a very dangerous time for the many foreign journalists who have been held hostage by ISIS for months,” said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who has worked on several of the cases. “The counter-ISIS offensive offers some hope that they could be freed, but there is a grave danger that their ISIS captors will execute them as they lose ground, as they have already done with some of their Syrian captives.”
The brutal nature of the intra-rebel fighting has seen both sides executing captured opponents. No foreigner has been known to be among the dead, however.
ISIS has faced widespread accusations – from fellow rebels and international and local human rights activists – of engaging in a campaign of terror against not only rival rebel factions and the secular civil activists that initially helped start the revolt against President Bashar Assad in early 2011, but also against local and foreign journalists.
Hundreds of Syrians have gone missing in ISIS-controlled areas, with released prisoners telling harrowing tales of appalling detention conditions, torture and even execution.
As many as 30 foreign journalists and aid workers also have disappeared in Syria. Some of those are believed to be held by the government, while others are thought to be held by ISIS and other rebel factions. A precise number being held, however, is difficult to come by since many of the abductions have been kept secret by family and employers.
There have been few ransom demands known to have been made for the release of the missing Westerners, something that security industry professionals said sets the Syrian civil war apart from other conflicts.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one industry expert who had worked on kidnappings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and West Africa before Syria. “Even offers to pay for something as simple as a proof of life, proof that a certain group is holding someone, have usually gone nowhere. Westerners that go missing inside Syria often appear to have vanished off the face of the Earth.”
The expert asked not be identified because of the nature of his work and because he’s representing several families with missing members in Syria who did not authorize his discussing the matter with a reporter.
American journalists Austin Tice and James Foley, whose disappearances have been acknowledged by their families, have been missing for more than a year. People close to each case say that who’s holding them remains uncertain.
In the past month, the families of Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia, Spanish journalists missing since October, released a statement that said both men are believed held by ISIS in Raqqa, a provincial capital that ISIS controlled and that is now is the focus of fighting. Various news organizations have admitted that another Spanish citizen, along with four French, two Swedes, one Lebanese, a Jordanian and a Ukrainian, are also missing. At least three other Americans and a British citizen are known to be missing, though the families have requested that their identities not be publicized.
Syria was recently highlighted as perhaps the most dangerous country to report from by the Committee to Protect Journalists based on the kidnapping epidemic alone.
With the attitude toward Western journalists uncertain even among the rebel groups attacking ISIS – one, the Nusra Front, also is an al Qaida affiliate accused of kidnapping Westerners – some fear that the current anti-ISIS fighting might develop into mere transfers of captivity rather than rescues.
Bouckaert said, however, that that might be an improvement for the hostages. “Anything is better than ISIS,” he said.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.