Lebanon’s negotiations with al-Nusra: How Ali Bazzal’s execution was postponed

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Family members of the kidnapped soldiers erect posters of their loved ones in Downtown Beirut. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Monday, December 1, 2014

For the second time, Sheikh Mustafa Hujairi (Abu Taqiyyi) has succeeded in stopping the execution of the captive Lebanese army soldier Ali Bazzal. His mediation has so far resulted in the release of 13 hostages, and in stopping the execution of the abductee twice. Thus, once again, the government has decided to put him in charge of the [prisoner exchange] negotiations file. But for Hujairi, not much has changed. In all cases, representatives of the government and the Qatari-Syrian envoy turn to him for both minute and major issues.

Hujairi told Al-Akhbar, “There should not be any more temporary solutions. The government must commit to its pledges to ensure the release of the soldiers.”

“As of today, the phase of stalling must end,” he said, adding that “those holding the prisoners captive have made up their minds, and this is the last chance.”

At sunset last Friday, November 28, Hujairi headed to the outskirts [of Ersal]. The general atmosphere indicated that the “al-Nusra Front” was serious in its threats to kill the captive soldier Ali Bazzal, and that mediation with the group’s leaders would not dissuade them [from their decision].

“The issue is not that simple. Someone should have [attempted to] contact them,” he said on his way to the barren area where the “al-Nusra” militants are holed up.

After 6 pm, the army blocks all entry to the barren area. After a quarter of an hour of waiting at the army checkpoint, and mediation, Hujairi was allowed to pass. He said, “I decided to go personally because I knew that a disaster was imminent, and that I might be able to do something.” He noted that he waited for hours before he was allowed to meet with Abu Malik al-Talli, al-Nusra Front's emir [in the Syrian Qalamoun region].

In the meeting with al-Talli, “we started to suggest options and alternatives. I expressed my point of view that the government will not possibly accept to release Joumana Hamid in particular, as it may be beyond its power since the latter has been mentioned by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah personally. He suggested that we choose another name, and the discussion dragged on as to who this person would be. The main focus in the negotiation was to stop the execution of Bazzal in return for a declared formal commitment from the government to hold negotiations. I told him, ‘if [the government] does not fulfill [its pledges], do whatever you want.’ Phone calls by politicians poured in, namely by Minister Wael Abu Faour, who has been closely following the negotiations.”

Hujairi said that “the condition to stopping the execution was to start direct negotiations without any delay,” adding that “the government only issued a statement after agreeing with al-Nusra on it.”

Have the negotiations started, or have they not? In the midst of hearsay, the truth has been lost. Who is procrastinating? Who bears the responsibility?

Government representatives say that “the kidnappers have not handed over the list of names yet,” while “al-Nusra sources claim that “although the full lists have not been submitted, the government representative has received lists of names and was filmed during the receipt.” According to the sources, this “proves the bad faith of the government, because if it was serious, it would have immediately started to negotiate names that would not cause controversy.”

Sources from al-Nusra confirm that “Ali Bazzal was taken [to a location] where he was going to be slaughtered once the deadline had passed.” Will al-Nusra Front believe the Lebanese government’s promises this time?

According to the sources, “in its statement issued after midnight, the government pledged commitment... If it sticks to its [pledge], we will do the same. Otherwise, Ali and his colleagues are still in our custody.” As for the course of the negotiations, the sources assert that “no negotiations have been held since they were halted… and the Qatari mediator only acted like a postman who conveys news.” They confirmed that “Abu Taqiyyi will resume negotiations from where they stopped a few months ago,” noting that “if a negotiator does not have cards and names to negotiate on, they will fail.”

The sources revealed that the General Emir of al-Nusra Front Abu Mohammed al-Golani personally intervened to request the execution of Bazzal. They said that “everything that is happening in the negotiations is a message to Hezbollah.” The sources confirm that the release of Hezbollah’s hostage was not in return for just two captives from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” They added, “Hezbollah members kidnapped relatives of an FSA leader living in Lebanon and threatened him, so he was forced to respond.”

The meeting of the crisis cell in charge of the soldiers’ file was announced one hour after the end of the session. However, the meeting, which saw intensive discussions, did not result in a clear, decisive position on the negotiations.

Ministerial sources said that “the lack of seriousness by the Qatari envoy prompted the government to search for other channels,” noting that “the Qatari envoy promised to come three days ago, but he hasn’t showed up yet, and there is no positive indication regarding his role.”

They added that “communication with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been cut off, and al-Nusra appears to be confused about adding new names to the list,” although Bazzal’s father received a threat yesterday [November 30] afternoon that his son would be executed if the government does not begin to negotiate.

The ministerial sources confirmed that “the majority of the committee members are in favor of holding negotiations under the law, i.e., [they oppose] the release of dangerous wanted persons. While Abu Faour has demanded holding immediate negotiations irrespective of the names of the wanted persons, and reaching a speedy settlement at any price, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk called for not yielding to the pressure of the kidnappers.

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter: @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Wael Abou Faour is doing the right thing.The government must hold the negotiations and free all soldiers held captive. It does not matter what names the Nusra has on the list to be released in exchange. Its not like they are their only terrorists.

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