Pope Francis strayed into controversy last week when he said that, while he supported military action against Islamic State, he also would not rule out speaking to the group if it would help bring peace to Syria and Iraq. “It is difficult, one could say almost impossible, but the door is always open,” he said.
Many questioned whether the Pope had taken leave of his senses. But he is not being contradictory, or foolish, in supporting military action now and, at the same time, advocating for a diplomatic end goal for the future.
I have studied the conflicts between governments and armed groups over the last thirty years, and the pattern is always the same. Every time we meet a new terrorist group we say we will never talk to them, and yet pretty much every time we end up doing so. This is especially true if they have genuine political support, as the so called ‘Islamic State’ appear to have.
People say that Islamic State is quite different from previous groups — more bloodthirsty, more irrational and more nihilistic. But that is what we say every time we meet a new group.
When I left the British government in 2008 I said, on the basis of my experience of dealing with the Irish Republican Army for a decade, that we should talk to Hamas, to the Taliban and even to al Qaeda. The Foreign Office predictably dismissed the idea. They said that while it was fine to talk to the IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organization, these new groups were beyond the pale.
In the six years since then, the U.S. and Israeli governments have negotiated a ceasefire with Hamas, the U.S. government has negotiated a prisoner swap with the Taliban and the former head of MI5 has suggested we should be talking to al Qaeda.
If so much can change in just six years, who is to say that we will not be talking to Islamic State at some point too?
People ask what we would negotiate with Islamic State about. Their demand for a universal caliphate is completely unacceptable. But so was the demand of Free Aceh Movement (or GAM) in Indonesia for an independent Aceh, and the demand of the IRA for a united Ireland, made at gunpoint and without regard for the wishes of the majority Northern Ireland’s population.
When we sat down with them, however, it turned out that there were other things they wanted: like a power-sharing government, Equal opportunities and the use of the Irish language.
The same could be true of Islamic State.
The Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria have legitimate grievances about the way they were treated by the sectarian governments of Nouri al-Maliki, and the way they continue to be treated under Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Unless those grievances are properly addressed, there won’t be a lasting peace settlement in either country.
I am not suggesting for a minute that the West should sit down and try to negotiate with Ibrahim al Baghdadi now, even if he were prepared to do so.
That would be ludicrous, as the conditions are not present at the moment for such negotiations to succeed.
But in past conflicts, governments have opened up secret channels to terrorist groups using intelligence services. Those channels have allowed negotiations to take place at a later, more propitious time.
The British government opened a channel to the IRA in 1972 and it was finally used by John Major in 1991-1993 to bring about a ceasefire and peace negotiations.
People underestimate how long it takes to build trust and educate armed groups about what is realistic and what is not. Negotiations themselves are only possible when there is a military stalemate. One could envisage a situation where a secret channel is opened up to Islamic State and, eventually, negotiations take place once they have been adequately checked militarily.
If history is anything to go by, a combination of military pressure and offering a political way out through negotiations is likely to be the only way of getting to a lasting settlement. Keeping the door open, as Pope Francis suggests, is a good idea after all.
Jonathan Powell is author of Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts. He was chief of staff to Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007.