Friday, December 13, 2013

As-Safir on the Negotiations for the Nuns' Release

Arabic original here.

The Nuns of Maaloula: A Race between Mediation Attempts and the Assault on Yabroud

by Muhammad Ballout

The nuns from Maaloula will soon be in Lebanon, the kidnappers' last refuge, if intermediaries and the channels open with them do not arrive at a quick solution, especially after the expansion of the Syrian Army's assault on Yabroud in the coming days with the launching of a second phase of the military operation in Qalamoun.

Twelve nuns, four of them Lebanese, the others Syria. Three channels for negotiations have alternatively tried to obtain the kidnappers' list of demands in order to speedily arrange an exchange. Optimism reigns over the negotiation process on account of the fact that the kidnappers immediately entered into a process of multilateral dialogue in order to reach a deal about the nuns. This is an important sign because it is the first time that Jabhat al-Nusra quickly seeks to reach a deal over the kidnapping victims it holds, while the fate of its previous kidnapping victims before there was any clarity or even any acceptance of in principle of negotiations by the kidnappers.

Within the channels that are negotiating or have attempted to negotiate, there is no representative of the Syrian government, which is content to meet demands or to monitor what is happening at a distance. There is a local channel led by a Syrian figure who has contributed in the past to negotiations for the release of hostages, there is a Qatari channel that started work two days ago, and there is the channel of the United Nations.

A source in the Free Syrian Army in Qalamoun says that an interlocutor for the Vatican is trying to open a fourth channel involving direct negotiations with the kidnappers and a generous financial offer in exchange for the nuns' release, but Jabhat al-Nusra is proposing conditions that, up to now, do not include any monetary conditions or ransom. Standing in the background, alongside the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra in Yabroud, are Mithqal Hamama and Ahmad al-Muqambar, local leaders in one of the brigades of the Free Syrian Army. They are attempting to obtain a portion of any exchange and monetary ransom as well as personal security guarantees.

Ahmad al-Muqambar is from the village of al-Mashrafeh (also called Falita), while Mithqal Hamama is from Bakha'a in the Qalamoun town of Sarkha. Hamama played a leading role in seizing the nuns of Maaloula and taking them out of the Monastery of Saint Thekla, which he stormed with a group of his fighters, who belong to Liwa Tahrir al-Sham. This brigade has 1200 fighters and is led by a deserter captain, Firas al-Bitar. Its units are especially active in Ghouta and Qalamoun, from which al-Bitar also hails.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which led the assault on Maaloula at the beginning of last week, seized the nuns after they were taken to the town of Sarkha, which is under the control of Mithqal Hamama, and transported them to Yabroud, which is under control of the Jabhat al-Nusra leader Malik al-Talli, a Syrian, and his deptuty, Hamdi Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, a Kuwaiti-Syrian, as his mother and wife are Syrian.

In recent hours, negotiations have set great store on the opening of an international channel for negotiations with Jabhat al-Nusra for the release of the nuns and four orphans who were in their care that Jabhat al-Nusra took with them from the Monastery of Saint Thekla to the village of Sarkha, before they were left with al-Talli and his deputy, who is conducting negotiations under the name Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti. Likewise, much has been made of the entrance of the Qataris as intermediaries after the visit to Doha by the visit of Lebanese Director of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim.

The United Nations attempted, through Mukhtar Lamani, the personal representative in Damascus of the Arab and international envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, to play a role in facilitating negotiations for the nuns' release. At the beginning Lamani spoke to the abbess of the monastery, Mother Pelagia, via Skype, however the attempt ran into Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti's insistance on the presence of the international diplomat in Yabroud to conduct negotiations face-to-face.

The United Nations refuses to allow any of its diplomats to go to meet with the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra in Yabroud for security and legal reasons, among them the inclusion of Jabhat al-Nusra on the list of terrorist organizations and the fact that Abu Azzam has not forward demands that can be clearly discussed. Lamani stipulated that his presence in Yabroud would be to receive the nuns, which caused Jabhat al-Nusra to put an end to negotiations and ended the United Nations channel.

Soon afterward, the local Syrian channel received demands in exchange for the nuns' release that included military and security aspects. It is obvious that the Syrian authorities will not agree to implement any of the military or security conditions proposed by Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, who is conducting the negotiations and up to now has not permitted any of the negotiators to speak directly with Malik al-Talli. Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti's conditions for the nuns' release ranged from shipments of flour and food to beseiged areas in Eastern Ghouta to lifting the seige from Moadamiyet al-Sham, demands that, according to one of the negotiators, they can go forward with.

All those who have negotiated with Abu Azzam agree that he put forward the demand for the release of one thousand women held in prison by the Syrian regime, although no one has received a list of the names of those whom he wants to exchange for the nuns, despite a week having passed since the start of negotiations. However, what is putting negotiations at an impasse is Jabhat al-Nusra's demand for a stop to the Syrian Army's operation in Qalamoun at the end of the list of military conditions dictated by Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti to his negotiating partners. Abu Azzam proposed the withdrawal of the army checkpoint at the entrance to Maaloula, the removal of army units from the strategic Monastery of the Cherubim overlooking  Saydnaya, and the removal of a Syrian Army unit stationed at a monastery in Qara. He demanded in general the removal of any Syrian Army presence from "Christian regions", as he said, in order to neutralize them from the conflict.

The negotiatiors give them impression that Jabhat al-Nusra's man in Yabroud does not have the final say and that he is acting as an intermediary, most likely receiving orders from a third party who determines the course and conditions of the negotiations, which have become more complicated in recent hours, after Jabhat al-Nusra threatened to send the nuns to Lebanon. The threat comes with the arrival  in Yabroud two days ago of Abu Hasan al-Arsali, one of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army in Arsal and one of the supervisors of supply operations out of Lebanese territory. It is not known whether this is directly related to the issue of the nuns or the threat to transport them to Lebanon.

The entry of the Qataris in the past few hours into mediation with the kidnappers seems encouraging, after the issue of the nuns had entered into a race with the military operation nearing Yabroud, about whose impact on negotiations there are conflicting expectations. One of the participants in the negotiations told as-Safir that the army's advance toward Yabroud will not leave Jabhat al-Nusra with many options and that protecting the nuns might become a burden for the kidnappers in the coming days.

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