Writers: Lt. Col. (Res.) Avi Kalo and Lt. Col. (Res) Doron Hadar
In our recent review (March, June 2020) of the second wave of hostage and MIA deals the US made with adversaries across the globe we analyzed the Trump administration’s pro-active hostage and MIA paradigm. At the outset of the process we argued that this was not an ingle event but rather a process and latest chain of events point out that the strategic change of the US policy on hostages and MIAs we identified is being established.
Moreover, the activities to rescue American hostages, led by the National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brian (formerly the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs) are going strong regardless of the presidential elections (this review was written prior to the presidential elections) in a manner that illustrates the importance of the issue within the administration’s agenda, alongside an effort “to clear the table” as far as hostage/MIA affairs are concerned all while employing “360 degrees tools” that include intelligence, diplomatic, operational, propaganda as well as direct and indirect negotiations.
Thus, it recently came to light that over 270 Houthi terrorists incarcerated in Oman have been released and returned to Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen, in return for the release of two American hostages and the corpse of a civilian. As is already known, the Houthi are an armed militia, a veteran proxy of Iran that has been harassing the Saudis for years, including ground warfare. At the same time Navy Seals rescued on October 15th, 2020, eight hostages held by al-Qaeda in a cave in Yemen. That said, the Seals have not rescued a ninth hostage, an American journalist that was transferred to another location two days prior to the Seals’ raid. At the request of the administration the media held out on going public with the full operation’s details so as not to increase the risk for the journalist’s life as well as other rescue operations, and tacitly, to enable the administration to consummate the above hostage negotiation.
The decades old leading US policy has been to prioritize the use of military forces to rescue hostages over a “surrender” to a hostage deal. this policy has been undergoing a tectonic change that intensified during Covid-19 pandemic (see our previous articles) and in fact the US has been employing a connected vessels approach while distancing itself from age old rigid paradigms (e.g. declarative statements coupled with an operative policy of not negotiating with terrorists); Within that approach, the deployment of efficient and flexible set of operational, intelligence, propaganda, media, clandestine and diplomatic tools will form an integrated governmental system to rescue American hostages.
Much like other countries, when the military option in non-existent or has low chances of success - negotiations are needed. Similar to other hostage deals in the middle east, the conversion rate between a sovereign state and a terrorist organization is asymmetric (e.g. the Gilad Shalit deal) as opposed to such rate when dealing with a rogue state who trade in hostages. A state holds a large number of incarcerated terrorists whereas a militia holds a few and channels the hostage negotiation to promote political interests, propaganda etc. – this modus operandi is prevalent within organizations that hostile to Israel such as Hezbollah, Hamas and PIJ and in most cases it is mixed with a deep military narrative that requires (Israel mostly) to pay a higher price to consummate a hostage deal.
On a deeper level, the above processes may affect not only the government’s modus operandi but also public opinion regarding the consummation of asymmetrical hostage deals. Practically speaking, it is advisable that these processes will affect other hostage negotiations sectors (e.g. the Israeli-Hamas one for the return of two KIA IDF soldiers and several mentally impaired civilians) and Covid-19 crisis be used to arrive at a historic ZOPA (Zone Of Possible Agreement) between the parties and bring this negotiation of a satisfactory conclusion. By the nature of things, a consummated hostage deal between Hamas and Israel will greatly assist in stabilizing the lingering friction between the parties.