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Yasuda's release possibly connected to larger shifts in Syria, Middle Eastern politics

The image of a man appearing to be Jumpei Yasuda that was released on the internet in July 2018.

ANTAKYA/CAIRO -- After appearing to have been kept captive in Syria since June 2015, freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda, 44, was confirmed to have been released on Oct. 24. But questions still remain about the timing of his release after over three years and the influence of changing circumstances in the Middle East.

On the evening of Oct. 23, the UK-based NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed that Yasuda had been released as the result of a "Turkish-Qatari deal," adding that "large sums of money" paid for the journalist's release. The group has analyzed information on the movements of the Syrian government and opposition forces since the civil war broke out in the nation in 2011.

SOHR Director Rami Abdurrahman told the Mainichi Shimbun on Oct. 24 that the money was not paid by the Japanese government, but by Qatar, and that he had received information that it was a move by Qatar to appeal to the international community through the humanitarian rescue. He also reported that the ransom was 3 million dollars, or roughly 330 million yen.

In addition, the Syrian man in Turkey who posted videos and still images of a man who appeared to be Yasuda on the internet told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The militant group had requested money from the Japanese side." The man is said to have connections with several rebel militant groups in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where Yasuda was being held.

The Japanese government denies that it has ever paid ransom money to a militant group. However, regardless of who made the payment, there is a prevailing view among Syria watchers that some armed groups can be swayed with money.

According to the SOHR and the Syrian man, Yasuda was first captured by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee. Like the extremist group the Islamic State (IS), the former Nusra Front group was known for kidnapping and holding foreign reporters and members of human rights support organizations captive.

While the reason remains unclear, Yasuda was later moved into the custody of a newly created extremist organization, then again to a group called the "Turkistan Islamic Party," founded by Uyghurs, the western Chinese minority Muslim ethnic group. However, unlike IS which has executed captives, "militant groups other than IS often release the individual after receiving ransom money," the Syrian man explained.

According to the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, when the Nursa Front held three Spanish journalists captive in northern Syria in July 2015, the Spanish government entered into negotiations through Qatar and Turkey, and agreed to pay the group a total of 11.1 million dollars, or some 1.221 billion yen. The journalists were released in May 2016.

On the other hand, some observers point out that it is possible that regardless of ransom money, the group may have not been able to financially and organizationally continue to hold Yasuda in their custody.

As the Syrian civil war stands currently, the government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad have taken back control of almost all regions, and only the province of Idlib remains as a last stronghold for opposition forces. In September, through intermediate negotiations between Russia, which backs Assad, and Turkey, which has been supporting the opposition, an agreement was reached to set up a demilitarized zone along the border between government and opposition-held territory in Idlib. There, the withdrawal of troops and removal of tanks and heavy artillery has begun.

Western governments such as the United States and France have also halted their support of opposition forces, and while some terror attacks and fighting continue, it is clear that the conflict is starting to wind down. On the evening of Oct. 23, a man living in Idlib said, "Because of financial troubles, there are some militant groups that tax residents to fund their activities," stressing how stretched out the remaining forces are in the area.

--- Qatar playing major role in Yasuda's release

With the release of Yasuda, the small Persian Gulf country of Qatar and Turkey, the government of which has recently deepened its ties with the former, have come even further into the international spotlight.

Qatar made the news in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries severed ties with it over claims that the nation was providing "support for terrorist organizations." This was due to the fact that the Islamic group the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi government considers to be a terrorist group, is supported by the government of Qatar.

In recent years, Qatar had brought on Saudi wrath for teaming up with Saudi rival Iran in developing offshore gas fields in the Persian Gulf, challenging Saudi Arabia's clout in the region.

Turkey, which also supports the Muslim Brotherhood, teamed up with Qatar. Following the severing of diplomatic ties with those Middle East powers, the Turkish government flew in food supplies along with installing a Turkish military presence in Qatar to protect the country from Saudi "pressure."

In the Syrian civil war, the United States and Turkey had supported opposition forces, and after deepening its ties with Turkey, Qatar also began supporting the anti-government front. In particular, Qatar had ties with the former Nusra Front and other groups that held power over Idlib province where Yasuda was being held.

--- Saudi writer killing a factor in Yasuda's release?

SOHR Director Abdurrahman added that the timing of Yasuda's release seems to also be connected to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. According to Abdurrahman, the Turkish army began negotiations for Yasuda's release through Qatar. Yasuda was then handed over to a "non-Syrian group with close ties to the Turkish authorities," and released into the custody of Turkish authorities on Oct. 19.

Abdurrahman said that the announcement of Yasuda's release was pushed back to after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the results of an investigation that Khashoggi's death was "a murder planned by Saudi authorities" on the morning of Oct. 23. This was because while the Saudis are accused of killing a journalist, Turkey and Qatar could show off their efforts to the international community, Abdurrahman explained.

This flow of events is also consistent with the movements of the Japanese government. At a press conference on Oct. 24, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga disclosed that International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Collection Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had taken action toward the release of Yasuda. The group was established in December 2015 as a control center located in the prime minister's official residence after the abductions and murders of Japanese nationals by IS. According to those familiar with the matter, the government requested the cooperation of Turkey and Qatar via this government unit, and roughly a week earlier, the group received information that Yasuda could possibly be released.

(Japanese original by Muneo Takahashi, Jerusalem Bureau, and Koichi Shinoda, Cairo Bureau)

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