Freeing the nuns: Qatar's continuing influence

Kidnapped nuns arrive at Jdeidet Yabus on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon after an arduous nine-hour journey that took them from Yabrud into Lebanon, and then back into Syria on March 10, 2014. (Photo: AFP- Louai Beshara)

Published Monday, March 10, 2014

The release of the kidnapped nuns from Maaloula is yet another development linked to the ongoing battle in the Qalamoun region in Syria. Over the span of the three months that the nuns were held hostage, their captors constantly made more demands, including the release of all Islamist detainees in Syria and Lebanon. The kidnappers only slowly began to abandon some of their demands as the soldiers of the Syrian army and Hezbollah came closer to the city of Yabrud.

A knowledgeable source of the behind the scenes details of the negotiations told Al-Akhbar that "the kidnappers became certain that the Syrian army and Hezbollah would enter Yabrud soon, meaning the nuns were no longer a high value bargaining chip.” As the Syrian army and Hezbollah continued to advance in Qalamoun, they decided to strike a deal for the nuns’ release.

Sources indicated that the Qataris were negotiating directly with the kidnappers. They told Al-Akhbar that the negotiations were carried out by Abu Azzam al-Souri, the representative of al-Nusra Front's emir in Qalamoun, also known as Abu Malek al-Tallah.

Although the Free Qalamoun Brigade had announced its responsibility for kidnapping the nuns, sources maintain that al-Nusra Front was behind their kidnapping. Sources also indicate that the agreement to release them was reached on Saturday and disclosed the list of demands presented by the kidnappers, which the negotiating side agreed to fulfill.

The negotiations process had been started by the head of the United Nations delegation to Syria Mokhtar Lamani, who communicated directly with Abu Azzam. Azzam had presented himself as a negotiator on behalf of the kidnappers and is believed to be the personal assistant of al-Nusra Front's emir in Qalamoun.

Abu Azzam made several demands for the release of the nuns. According to the same sources, Lamani suggested to the kidnappers that they deliver the nuns to a neutral location, suggesting Lebanon. Lamani informed the Lebanese Internal Security Forces Director Ibrahim Abbas of the plan, who agreed to it without hesitation. At a later stage, Abu Azzam requested to meet Lamani in person but he was informed that Lamani was not mandated to do so.

This was followed by the arrival of a Qatari delegate to Lebanon, who entered Yabroud through Ersal, accompanied by a Lebanese officer, where they spent three days.

Following this trip, Ibrahim went on Al-Jadeed television channel and informed the viewers that the kidnapped nuns would be released soon, saying it would be before the end of the month. However, the negotiations had not stopped yet and continued in this manner. Qatari mediators shuttled between Lebanon and Syria, in coordination with Ibrahim. Another month went by until the efforts were finally successful.

The two main negotiators, Ibrahim Abbas and Qatari Director of Intelligence Saada al-Kabisi, had exchanged each side’s demands. Several rounds of negotiations later, an agreement was reached to release the nuns and their assistants, a total of 16 people, in return for the release of several dozen detainees in Syrian prisons, including female relatives of commanders of armed groups.

They reached an agreement after al-Kabisi held several meetings with the fighters in Yabroud as Major General Abbas met with Syrian officials in Damascus. The exchange was planned to be executed in two phases on the same day.

The kidnapped nuns would be handed to the Lebanese ISF in the Ersal mountainside, close to the village of Flita in Syria. The detainees from Syrian prisons would later be handed to the two mediators in Jdeidet Yabous. In between the two phases, al-Kabisi would deliver a large sum of money to the kidnappers in Ersal as ransom for the nuns.

The large sum of money paid by the Qatari government, would be in exchange for the release of dozens of female and male prisoners from Syrian prisons. Although their number was reported to be around 153, Al-Akhbar obtained information that actual figure is much lower. It was also revealed that the negotiator on behalf of al-Nusra attempted to make demands related to the ongoing fighting in Qalamoun.

A few days ago, the kidnappers said they had moved the nuns to nearby Ras al-Ain and then to Rankous on the Lebanese border, before taking them to Flita.

The leaked news was put in the context of keeping them away from the threat of bombardment. However, it soon became clear that their transfer went hand-in-hand with the negotiations for their release.

When the time came for the implementation of the agreement, a long motorcade from the ISF, carrying with them the Qatari negotiator, headed to Ersal to deliver the ransom while several cars went to Flita in Syria.

The process of handing over the nuns was supposed to occur when the kidnappers suddenly decided to change the agreement. They demanded that the detainees released from Syrian prisons be handed over in Ersal.

The demand was relayed to Syrian officials, who insisted on abiding by the original agreement. Pressure by the Qatari mediator convinced the kidnappers of doing the same.

The nuns arrived to the village of Jdeidet Yabous a little after midnight on Monday, after an exhausting journey of nine hours. Two of them could not walk and had to be carried by members of the security forces.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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