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Podcast / December 07 2021

The road to repatriation

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This week, we hear about a negotiation that should have been easy, but turned out to be long and complicated. 

Jussi Tanner is an ambassador and special envoy with the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In late 2019, he was called on to negotiate with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, a Kurdish-led area that’s part of Syria but has its own governing body and military units. Those units helped defeat the ISIS caliphate in 2019. They now run detention camps in the region that hold many former ISIS fighters and their families, including some foreigners.

Tanner’s mission was to get the Kurdish-led government to release Finnish mothers and children in the camps for repatriation. He thought it would take just a few weeks — instead, the negotiation lasted for nearly two years.

Full Transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.




From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. 




JENN: This week, we’ll be talking about a negotiation that should have been easy, but turned out to be long and complicated. Jussi Tanner is an ambassador and special envoy with the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In late 2019, he was called on to negotiate with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria — that’s a Kurdish-led area that’s part of Syria, but it also has its own governing body and military units. Those units helped defeat the ISIS caliphate. They now run detention camps in the region, where many former ISIS fighters and their families are held, including some foreigners. Tanner’s mission was to get the Kurdish-led government to hand over Finnish mothers and children in the camps for repatriation. He thought it would just take a few weeks. Instead, the negotiation went on for almost two years. 


Later in the episode, you’re going to hear my conversation with Govinda Clayton, a co-creator of the show and an expert on conflict resolution. But first, here’s Tanner. 



So in Autumn 2019, I was working as ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative in our — in Finland’s UN mission in New York City. And we had a series of meetings about a very pressing issue of, of what to do with al-Hol camp in northeast Syria and the former ISIS affiliates in the camp, including a set of Finnish citizens — around 40-plus Finnish citizens, and among them a large number of children. And then what happened was that in early October — I think it was the 9th of October — Turkey attacked northeast Syria. And then the issue of al-Hol, and particularly the issue of children there, became even more pressing and urgent and appeared critically vulnerable — to position the status of children there. So there was an increasing political pressure to do something. And then on Sunday, the 25th of October, I got a phone call from my minister. And the minister sort of asked, “Could you come over and take this activity over for a little while?” He talked about a couple of weeks first. So this was Sunday the 25th. And Tuesday the 27th, I was already on the plane to Helsinki. 


Just like in most Western European countries, there was a number of nationals who traveled to Syria after 2011 when the Civil War broke out. There were around 80 adult individuals. It’s not a huge number, but compared to the size of the Muslim population, it was one of the largest, actually, in Western Europe. Both fighters and family members. So there was a number of women who traveled there as well. Some of them took their small children with them, and some of them traveled there alone. So they ended up, most of them, in the ISIS caliphate that was declared in 2014. And all of these who were in the camp were detained after the last stronghold of ISIS fell to the Kurdish-led SDF — Syrian Democratic Forces — and the Coalition. 


This issue had been on the table of the government, and it had already proved to be an impossibly difficult political issue. I mean, to put it very crudely, everybody wanted to help the children, but no one really wanted to bring the mothers back to Finland. And by October 2019, the issue had become extremely politicized, extremely sensitive, divisive and toxic. But quite quickly, I think that it became evident that it will not be possible under Finnish law to separate children from their mothers. And it would not be possible factually, because the authority controlling the camps was strictly opposed to separating children from their mothers. 


So I started looking at the contacts that I had and that I could draw on. I knew that I needed to establish contact with the Autonomous Administration and its civilian and possibly military side as well. The Kurds form the backbone of the administration, but it’s not an independent state. It’s a non-state actor; it’s part of sovereign Syria. At the same time, its relationship with the central government in Damascus is very complicated. So politically speaking, for a Finnish diplomat, or for any diplomat, it’s not a simple and straightforward thing to have engagement with a non-state actor like that. However, even though we didn’t have any political interests in the region, we do have a legitimate consular interest because of our citizens and particularly because of children being detained there in the camps. 


So once we got our ducks in order, I was good to go. So, I first thought that in terms of actually making the hosts of these camps to hand our citizens over to us, it would be simple and straightforward. It was quite a bit more complicated than that. I mean, there is a very widespread narrative that the Syrian Kurdish-led authority has, all the time, asked everybody to come and pick up their citizens and repatriate them. That narrative is false. When I started engaging with the main interlocutors of the Autonomous Administration of the authority, I quite quickly realized that they wanted to talk about much more besides the repatriation. The camps — with, at that point, maybe 70,000 individuals detained in al-Hol alone — really constitutes one of the only leverages that this administration, this group, has on the international community. I mean, the Kurdish-led administration is in an extremely vulnerable position, politically. They are clearly fighting for their survival. You can’t blame them, really, if they make the calculation that nothing else except these foreign citizens is going to bring diplomatic visits, corporation appearances together — the kind of diplomatic capital that they would never be able to attain otherwise. This is something that they desperately need. 


My first trip to northeast Syria was in December 2019, late December. I was their guest, and they were happy to welcome me. At dinner, they were joking that if I die, they will name something for me. And I suggested a checkpoint, because a lot of the checkpoints are named after somebody. But they said, “No, no, you are far too important for a checkpoint. It’s going to be a conference center or something like that.” 


I had a list of the names — that we knew that were in al-Hol — that were the Finnish children and their mothers. So I handed the list over to them. So they wanted to talk about an international tribunal for the ISIS-affiliated individuals and the women in their region, and they would have international attention that way. However, I certainly knew that any kind of criminal procedure for these women — gathering of evidence, you know, arranging the courts, funding all the myriad of legal issues involved — would inevitably take years for the courts to actually materialize. And I did see, in northeast Syria, that nothing was really ready for that. It was not something that would take place any time soon. But it took a while until I realized that this is really part of the negotiation. It was never as straightforward as having a list of demands and then another list of counter-demands. But it was more about the process of establishing contact. It was about drinking a lot of tea. It was about having a confidential atmosphere that you needed to build gradually. So you couldn’t start shooting your concrete demands immediately. Really a standard feature in any negotiation, when you think of it, but certainly that took a lot of time. 


And then I, I visited al-Hol. I met with a number of our families, and then I was able to take custody of two children. So these were two small children below the age of six, orphaned — their mother had been killed in a bombing some years back. I signed an official handover agreement in Qamishli, and then I took custody of the children and, and drove to the border with them, and then crossed the river Tigris to the Iraqi Kurdistan, where my team was waiting at the border station on the other side. 


I mean, I remember just crossing the river on this pontoon bridge from Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan, the kids were a little bit nervous, and I let them play with my mobile phone, and I’m sure they hadn’t seen many mobile phones, let alone played with them before. We then made our way overland to Erbil, where we had a chartered jet waiting, and then flew to Helsinki just before Christmas in 2019. 


Helsinki Airport was beautifully arranged by the domestic authorities. The jet rolled on the tarmac straight to a hangar. The large doors were closed behind the aircraft, and you could not see a single person, apart from one border guard and a doctor in the hangar on the floor. But there were a number of vehicles lined up on the sides of the hangar itself. And once we got out with the children and climbed down the stairs, the doctor made a short checkup. I gave the travel documents to the border guard, and then, once the kids started visibly feeling themselves a little bit more comfortable, then a number of different authorities appeared one by one, and they sort of did their respective duties. So it was very well done. And after the child protection authorities took custody of the kids, and my role was finished at the airport, I just greeted the kids and left. 


JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. We’ll be right back. 




JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. Before the break, Jussi Tanner had managed to negotiate the release of two Finnish orphans and bring them to Helsinki. He continued the negotiation for many months, but the Kurdish-led government remained ambivalent about the repatriation. Releases were slow and piecemeal. Finally, earlier this year, the autonomous government agreed to a policy change and a more systematic release. Tanner shared some thoughts about what might have prompted the reversal. 


JUSSI: I think that one of the lessons learned is that you really need to listen very carefully about the other side. Many times, when we face an obstacle in a negotiation, we tend to think that we can quickly return to our own strategy without really listening carefully to what the other party says. I think, in terms of the northeast Syrian authority, what they have been saying about the criminal accountability is something that has been so consistent that, unless they’ve found a way to somehow address that, it has been difficult for them to make progress as well. So, some kind of respect for that objective was necessary before they were able to move. 


Ultimately, we have been successful in repatriating two-thirds of our citizens so far, including 23 children. It’s an interesting story about the reactions, domestically, to the repatriations, because by far the most dramatic backlash, most dramatic reactions, were to the very first repatriation of the two orphaned children below the school age. So, just before Christmas in 2019, this issue was politically very, very toxic. You know, social media was pretty active, and you had a clear backlash. But then gradually, with the successive repatriations, the public reaction has become more and more muted. And I think one of the lessons on this issue is that once the government made a decision, and we put our ducks in order domestically and we were able to proceed, gradually, the political issue went away. And the general public, I think, moved on. And the political issue has really been put to bed. 


I’ve done these operational consular issues before, as well. I’ve worked on a few kidnap cases in the past. Evacuations — I was in Kabul for the non-combatant evacuation in August. But you know, in terms of this particular job with northeast Syria and some others — while we’ve been doing what we have done — I haven’t really seen much emotion. Not in myself and not in my colleagues. I suppose it’s partly, you know, the requirements of the service as well — that you have to maintain certain composure when dealing with issues like this. What I do detect, however, is that afterwards — a couple of months later, and especially after you’ve changed duties and you’re doing something completely different — these things tend to come back. You realize the emotional baggage. And even though it doesn’t really feel like there is any baggage while in the middle of an operation, then, you know, a couple of months or a year later, I tend to realize that yes, there has been. 


JENN: That was Jussi Tanner, an ambassador and special envoy with the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 


So let me introduce, once again, Govinda Clayton. He’s a negotiations expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. He’s also one of the creators of this show. I spoke to Govinda about some of our recent episodes and what they have in common. Here’s our conversation. 


JENN: Let’s just get right into it. A number of the negotiations that we covered this season involved religious conflicts. So you were telling us that there’s evidence that religious conflict is now actually the most common form of civil conflict. Can you tell us a bit more about that? And, you know, what’s the evidence for that? And why do you think that that is the case? Why is that increasingly common? 



Yeah, absolutely. So there’s actually been a number of studies on this topic recently, in particular, a really large research project undertaken by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden. And they’ve shown that conflict that’s fought over religious issues has become increasingly common. But this effect is actually being driven by the rise in what these researchers call “Islamist conflicts.” So these are basically conflicts in which at least one of the parties has some kind of self-proclaimed Islamist aspirations. Now, in 1975, none of the world’s conflicts — like, zero of the world’s conflicts — were fought over these kind of so-called Islamist claims. Whereas now, the majority of all civil conflicts — I think something like 28 out of 50 — were characterized by these types of claims. So while over the last decade or so all other types of conflict have been declining, this specific type of conflict has been becoming more common. This seems it’s because they’re harder to resolve and probably more likely to restart if they do eventually end. 


JENN: Yeah. So just thinking about that, I wonder — you know, if you think about the timing, if, you know, 1975, it’s right — kind of a little bit before the beginning of the, the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and kind of the rise of, you know, the kind of global jihadist movement that really kicked off during that conflict, with Osama bin Laden kind of starting to build his network and really kind of boosting that broader ideology that has, you know, spread and morphed and changed globally. So I think that makes sense. Is that kind of where they, they see that as having arisen? 


GOVINDA: Yeah, absolutely. And I know this is actually something you know a lot about, as well, Jenn. And I think you’re right on the money there, which is that these conflicts so closely relate to, or connected up with, transnational networks. And we know that transnational conflicts — which are conflicts that extend across national boundaries — are generally much more challenging to resolve. And that’s because when parties receive help from external actors — this might be, for example, through some kind of supply of foreign fighters or military financial support — this can, like, first of all, make it much easier for groups to mobilize in the first instance. Secondly, it can make it easier to kind of sustain the conflicts for longer periods. And then thirdly, if the group does decide to eventually come to some kind of resolution, it makes it easier for other groups to spring up and kind of pick up a similar struggle. So, yeah, these transnational conflicts that you identify as emerging around that same period, and obviously growing in strength over time, are perhaps the key reason why these types of conflicts are so hard to resolve. 


JENN: So, you know, one part of strengthening peace processes that we’ve talked about in particular on this show is including more women, right? You know, in the Afghanistan government talks with the Taliban… 



It was a challenge to make our voices heard, not only for Taliban, but for our own team members that was a challenge. 


JENN: …the UN peace process in Libya… 



We essentially took advantage of the online environment that was necessitated by COVID to launch these digital dialogues for women, youth and the municipalities. 


JENN: So, you know, beyond the kind of obvious niceties of, “Yes, we should include more women” — because of course we should — why do you think it’s so important to include more women in peace talks? What, particularly, do women kind of bring to the table that maybe men are lacking, or that maybe the perspective is lacking? 


GOVINDA: Yeah, this is actually a really important question, and one that I think everybody in the peace-building industry is present to right now. In fact, some of my colleagues have undertaken research on this exact question, and they’ve shown that processes that include women — so, in particular, peace agreements that include female signatories — tend to be more effective. So firstly, they tend to include more provisions, and we could think of the number of provisions as a rough proxy for the quality. These agreements tend to be implemented at a higher rate. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they tend to last longer. So this points to the fact that when women are involved in peace processes, they tend to be more effective. But I think it’s really important to note that the fantastic experts that you’ve included on this podcast are still, sadly, the kind of exception rather than the rule. So in Afghanistan, for example, I think maybe 10% of the negotiators involved were women. In Libya, I think it was something like 20%. And then when you go into more, kind of, specific fields, say — take, for example, the security area, where I do a lot of work — then the percentage of women is actually even lower than this. 


JENN: And why do you think that is? What are the big things that you see that are blocking that? 


GOVINDA: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard, right? Because, you know, on the one hand, it’s totally illogical. The better cross-section of society that we have, the, kind of, more representative we make a process and an agreement, the longer it’s going to last, and the more effectively it’s going to be implemented. But when damaging violence continues, the assumption — which I think does have some merit — is that we want to get to an agreement as quickly as possible. And so bringing just those actors that are causing the most deadly forms of violence to the negotiating table will perhaps then be the quickest route to a solution. You know, I’m not sure, but maybe there is a certain truth to that statement. 


JENN: Right. 


GOVINDA: But — and I think it’s the important thing, is that we do know that more inclusive processes tend to produce better and more sustainable agreements. And so, in the long term, that really does seem like a better solution. 


JENN: That’s really fascinating. And, you know, getting to the kind of basic level here, right? Like sometimes, there is no peace process to even speak of, right? You’ve got to start somewhere. So, you know, how do locals and, you know, international community groups, promote good behavior when there is absolutely no peace process? Like, where do you start? 


GOVINDA: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I think we need to kind of shift our focus to the small steps that we can take to limit or contain the violence, and hopefully build confidence between the actors that might lead to some kind of process in the future. So, for example, this might involve limiting violence in certain areas for limited periods of time. In Afghanistan, I think we heard about numerous local types of arrangements, for example, to allow children to attend school or markets to be open. 



This extraordinary elder, in some ways, he negotiates with the Taliban to reopen schools, and on a range of other issues. But he’s really the advocate for the community, with the Taliban, trying to get the Taliban to loosen up, to be less cruel to the population, to allow them to at least have access to things like schools and clinics and so on. 


GOVINDA: Those internationals, they’re sometimes the opportunity to support these local processes. But in many cases, actually, the involvement of internationals can kind of politicize these arrangements and can actually, actually become a cause for failure. So we saw this in Syria, for example, where a number of localized arrangements that were relatively successful — when the UN became involved, they became politically sensitive and quickly broke down. So instead, sometimes, I think international actors in these types of contexts can play an important role, reminding the conflict party of their responsibilities. So, for example, under international law, trying to help negotiate certain safe spaces or prohibit certain behavior, encouraging good behavior when actors do respond and acknowledge their responsibilities under international law. 


JENN: Our last episode that we just heard — about the #BringBackOurGirls deal with Boko Haram — one of the lead negotiators, Zannah Mustapha, attended this prestigious mediation training in Switzerland…



The Swiss ambassador got in touch with me and he said, “Well, you’ve been a legal practitioner, but have you had any formal training on mediation?” I said, “No, I don’t.”


JENN: …and, Gov, you’re actually pretty involved with this training. Can you tell us more about that? And, you know, what is actually involved with, you know, making this kind of a professionalized field of peacemaking? 


GOVINDA: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. So, the training that I think Zannah referred to is one of the specialist programs that we support here ETH Zurich, which is where I work. Zannah mentioned some of these in the discussion, so I think there’s a few core skills that all peacemakers need. Firstly, conflict analysis skills are vital foundational skills for peacemakers. They are kind of a key part of the toolkit, because you need to be able, as a peacemaker, to identify and analyze the different actors involved, the issues, the processes within a dispute, in order to develop a strategy and identify what we might call entry points — so kind of who to speak to, where and when that you might initiate, design and develop a process. I think secondly, I’d say core communication skills. So, we need to listen, ask questions and get to the heart of the issues involved in a dispute, and reframe difficult topics in such a way as to get resolutions. And then thirdly, the more — what you might call “technical process design skills.” So this is how you structure and organize a peace process. What issues do you put on the agenda? How do you structure these? How do you work with conflict parties to identify these? How do people sit? Where might you locate the talks? What different phases do you have to go to in order to progress a peace process? When and what type of experts do you bring in? At what place? At what time? What type of roles do they have? And yeah — so you have the kind of conflict analysis, communication, and these kind of technical process design skills. 


JENN: That’s really fascinating. My final question: You know, this is more kind of a small-“d” diplomacy kind of question, but you know, there are conflicts in our own lives that we have to negotiate every day, right? And I wonder if, you know, what do you think that we could do to kind of better position ourselves as negotiators, just on a day-to-day basis — whether it’s at work, with our partners, with our kids? What are some of the key tools that we can take from some of these conversations and apply them, maybe, in our own lives? 


GOVINDA: So I think a few things, maybe, if you — three top tips, I would say. Firstly, I mean, listening. It is crazy cliché, but it really is true. Like, listening really is your negotiating superpower. But it’s a particular type of listening. It’s really focusing on listening to understand rather than to respond. And so I kind of — I can actually guarantee that even the most stubborn, challenging people you would ever negotiate with, they will open up the second that they feel heard. And so focusing on listening is really the kind of number-one top tip. I think secondly — which is kind of related — is really to get curious and ask as many questions as you can. So I think one of the reasons most of us struggle to resolve most conflicts is because we really just assume that we know everything. So often, it’s actually — a kind of win-win solution’s out there for us if we can move into a position of curiosity where we try to understand the other side, rather than assuming that we have all the solutions to the problem already. And thirdly, looking for ways in which your understanding and your partner’s understanding can coexist with each other. So a really simple way of thinking about this is just replacing the word “but” with the word “and” in your language. So any times in which you would say “but,” replace it with “and.” And it’s effectively shifting your languaging, that you’re saying, like, “OK, here’s — here’s my story and here’s your story, and these two things can co-exist.” Whereas “but” kind of counteracts everything that came before it. 


JENN: Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your wisdom with us. I really appreciate it, Gov. 


GOVINDA: Thank you. 


JENN: That was Govinda Clayton, a negotiations expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich and a co-creator of this show. 


The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you like the show, please follow us on your favorite platform and leave a review. It really helps. And if you appreciate Foreign Policy, and are sick of reaching your article limit, we have a special deal just for you, and it’s a bigger one this time. Head over to to become an FP subscriber and use the code NEGOTIATE to get a 20% discount. 


This is our last episode of the season. Thank you all so much for listening, and please, tell your friends about the show and come back from time to time. We hope to have new episodes of The Negotiators soon. I’m Jenn Williams.