"We don’t pretend to know everything that happened."
Those are the words of Amy Rosen, a cousin of Peter Theo Curtis, the American journalist who was released from his captivity in Syria over the weekend. Speaking to the New York Times, Rosen said that her family was assured by the government of Qatar, which brokered Curtis’s release, that "under no circumstances would a ransom be paid."
But on the news that the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra had decided to free Curtis a week after a video emerged of the brutal execution of James Foley, it is not surprising that Rosen would qualify that statement. Indeed, the U.S. government has categorically denied paying a ransom, and it remains unclear why Curtis was released. (Incidentally, similar questions remain about whether a ransom was paid for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was set free with Qatari help.)
One thing that is clear, however, is the leading role of Qatar in securing Curtis’s freedom — and that goes a long way in explaining what happened here, even if concrete details are scant. In a statement, the Gulf nation said it had worked for Curtis’s release because of "Qatar’s belief in the principles of humanity and its keenness on the lives of individuals and their right to freedom and dignity." That statement offered no further details.
As it is extremely unlikely that a group like Jabhat al-Nusra would free Curtis, a highly valuable bargaining chip, out of the kindness of its heart, the Qataris probably ponied up the cash to set him free. But why would the Qatari sheikhs do so? The answer lies in the double game the Gulf nation is playing.
The beheading of Foley marked an ugly turn in the Syrian civil war, one that has already been marked by awful brutality on all sides of the conflict. Qatar has played a role in fueling that violence, by funneling arms and weapons to Islamist groups. Some of those weapons have ended up in the hands of hard-line radicals. Qatar also provides a home for a handful of influential Islamist leaders, including the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, and Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, an al Qaeda financier.
At the same time, Qatar continues to serve as a vital ally of America in the region, playing host to key U.S. military installations and reveling in its role as a power broker.
Events like Foley’s execution inevitably upset the balance between Qatar’s competing impulses and force its leaders to compensate in one direction or another.
Specifically, the gruesome beheading of Foley put intense pressure on the White House to answer for its efforts to secure his release — pressure that Qatar has now slightly relieved. Curtis’s sudden release provides Barack Obama’s administration with a piece of good news — and tangible evidence that Americans can be freed without Washington doling out ransoms.
This, then, is what a double game looks like.