Negotiate with ISIS? Labour leadership candidate Smith backtracks on plan to sit down with jihadists

© Neil Hall
Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith has backtracked on claims he would “get round the table” with Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) to negotiate an end to the conflict in the Middle East.

Smith made the comments at a debate with serving leader Jeremy Corbyn in Nottingham, hosted by the BBC, where they were challenged on whether they would support peace talks with Syria’s President Bashar Assad or members of IS.

When asked whether IS should be allowed to join talks about resolving Syria’s civil war and other conflicts in the Middle East, Smith said “all actors” should be involved.

IS controls large areas of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks in the west.

Smith says he was a special adviser to Paul Murphy, Northern Ireland secretary in Tony Blair’s government, and helped to negotiate the peace settlement which ended the Troubles.

“I worked on the Northern Ireland peace process for three years; I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries.”

He added: “My view is that, ultimately, all solutions to these international crises do come about through dialogue, so eventually if we are to try to solve this all of the actors do need to be involved. But at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating.

“At some point for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.”

Smith faced criticism on social media for his comments and was urged to clarify his position.

One user wrote during a Q&A on Facebook: “In terms of negotiations with ISIS, if you were Prime Minister would you visit Raqqa to negotiate or invite ISIS leaders to Downing Street to discuss peace talks there?”

Another asked: “How can you possibly claim to be more electorally popular than Jeremy when you want to sit down at the negotiating table with Jihadi John and ISIS fanatics?”

Smith now appears to be backtracking on his comments, saying because IS are not interested in peace talks, there cannot be any.

“There can be absolutely no negotiation with any terrorist group until they renounce violence, cease all acts of terror and commit themselves to a peaceful settlement,” he wrote.

“My experience of working on the peace process in Northern Ireland, though, is that eventually all parties who truly believe in delivering peace have to be around the table.

“In the Middle East at the moment that clearly doesn’t include - and may never include - ISIS.”

Smith’s comments put him at odds with Corbyn, who said efforts to bring peace in Syria needed to be “redoubled” but ruled out IS being allowed to take part in talks.

“No, they are not going to be round the table, no,” he said.

Corbyn’s team has responded to Smith’s IS comments via social media, describing them as “hasty and ill-considered.”