Monday, March 10, 2014

As-Safir on the Negotiations Leading to the Nuns' Release

 Arabic original here. Cf. the report in Al-Akhbar English here and the Daily Star here.

The Nuns' Journey from Yabroud to Freedom

by Muhammad Ballout

Shortly before midnight yesterday the suffering of the thirteen nuns of Maaloula and their three helpers ended with their release and so ended another file of kidnappings in Syria as a clone of the scenario of the freeing of the Lebanese captives in Azaz, whether in terms of the pressure applied in the field, which tightened the noose around the kidnappers, the role played by Lebanese General Security and regional intermediaries, and the details of the exchange deal. The next question is: what about the two kidnapped bishops?

The nuns' journey to freedom was not easy, as it was interrupted by many pauses and the raising and lowering of expectations before its chapters were completed late last night with their arrival in Jdeidat Yabous, where awaiting them was the mediator who played a fundamental role in their affair, the director of General Security, General Abbas Ibrahim, in addition to a delegation representing the Orthodox Patriarchate, the Syrian Minister of Endowments, Bishop Luka Khoury, the governor of Rif Damascus and a number of those who had been following this affair from A to Z.

This result came as the culmination of a long trail of thorny negotiations  that continued over three months in which various countries participated, especially Qatar, and which were conducted by General Abbas Ibrahim under the auspices of the Lebanese President Michel Sleiman.

The freed nuns arrived at Jdeidat Yabous at the point located within the Syrian border, accompanied by General Security, one of whose patrols received the 16 nuns and helpers in Wadi Atta in the heights outside Arsal after the release operation had stalled for some time yesterday night due to pressure put by kidnappers at the last moment to modify the terms of the deal. This almost undid the outcome of the agreement with them before they came back around to abide by it, after a decisive response that they received from General Ibrahim, rejecting any attempt to fragment or repudiate any of the terms of the agreed-upon deal.

It has come to be known that during the last 15 minutes the kidnappers proposed an increase in the number of female detainees whose release they sought and the fragmentation of the deal such that  first 8 of the kidnapped nuns would be released then the others as part of a second deal while the Syrian authorities would release dozens of detainees in their custody in two stages as well. However, this proposal was rejected by Ibrahim, who conveyed to them his decisive position: either stricly implement the deal and release all the nuns at once or the operation will be completely cancelled.

Ibrahim's position was tied to officers from General Security leaving the point where they were waiting for the nuns in the hills  outside of Arsal. Before they could head for Beirut, they received new instructions from General Ibrahim to return to the agreed-upon point after the kidnappers backed down from their requests, their renewing contact with the Qatari mediator and his announcing his readiness to to continue the deal without modifications.

What helped to give impetus to the negotiations is that the Syrian Army stipulated the nuns' release within 24 hours, in conjunction with facts on the field in the vicinity of Yabroud where the nuns were being held, which  pushed the gunmen to agree to a fait accompli deal.

According to the information, the Maaloula nuns' liberation came within the context of of a package that released female detainees in Syrian prisons (more than 150 according to Ibrahim) and handing over 16 million American dollars to the kidnappers, paid by the state of Qatar, the head of whose intelligence services, Ghanem el-Kubaysi, had been in Lebanon since Saturday night (he had been following the negotiations since Thursday from Istanbul in daily coordination with General Ibrahim, who cut short his visit to Moscow and quickly returned to Beirut).

Details of the Deal

But what about the labor that preceded the happy ending and how was the deal brewed to free the nuns? As-Safir publishes the entire story in stages:

Sporadic and complex negotiations were held between the time of the Maaloula nuns' kidnapping on December 3, 2013 and yesterday evening. Three different channels negotiated with the deputy amir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, at his headquarters in Yabroud before reaching the final agreement.

In the wake of the kidnapping, two negotiation tracks were launched on the basis that the nuns were guests who could easily be freed and not hostages, which were repeated in order to give political cover to the kidnapping by pillars of the Syrian opposition such as Michel Kilo who, following the kidnapping, said that the nuns of Maaloula were guests staying with a friend in Yabroud and not kidnapping victims.

During the first few weeks, before the Qataris entered into the negotiations, Abu Azzam el-Kuweiti (deputy to Abu Malik el-Telli, the amir of al-Nusra in Qalamoun) had taken over from the first kidnapper and former fugitive between Syria and Lebanon, Mithqal Hamama, one of the leaders of the Sarkha Brigades, the group that kidnapped them during the second attack on Maaloula on December 2.

The kidnappers initially tried the office of the United Nations in Damascus and its head Mukhtar Lamani. Lamani refused to go to Yabroud to negotiate directly with Jabhat al-Nusra after talking over Skype with Abu Azzam el-Kuwaiti. New York had instructed Lamani to refuse any direct contact with Jabhat al-Nusrah, which is on the terrorism list, and so negotiations came to a halt.

A second track was opened parallel to the faltering United Nations track. Georges Haswani, a businessman and native of Yabroud played a prominent role in the negotiations. He was not a mediator in the precise sense of the word, but Haswani, who is close to the Syrian government, sometimes transmitted proposals and the responses to them in coordination with General Ibrahim. At times he returned matters with the kidnappers to their proper framework in order to gain time, in response to his constant and continuous negotiating partner, Abu Azzam el-Kuwaiti, who did not remove his suicide belt for a single second as he talked to him over Skype.

During the negotiations, the kidnappers and their hostages moved their residence to the home of Georges Haswani in Yabroud, which al-Nusra had confiscated in his absence. The businessman, paid the cost of the kidnappers' residence in his three-story home in order to improve the conditions of the nuns' detention and to make it easier to talk to them daily (over the course of three months, the nuns appeared twice on videotape).

The kidnappers repeated that they were not seeking any monetary ransom and that the greater part of their concern was focused on female detainees in Syrian government prisons. At the start, they put forward lists that included hundreds of names before becoming more modest and reaching the threshold of 138 names of Syrian female detainees. They stipulated that in order for the negotiation process to be complete and before arriving at a final resolution, the government should offer a gesture of goodwill and release an Iraqi prisoner called Suja Hamid el-Deilami, the wife of an Iraqi al-Qaeda leader whom the Syrian authorities had detained along with three of her children during one of the operations in the Damascus countryside. 

The Syrians rejected the condition regarding Suja el-Deilami because she is not one of the Syrian detainees and replied that the names that Abu Azzaz al-Kuwaiti had put forward are not all held by the government and that among 137 names, there was no information about 66 names, 10 of the detainees whose names appear on the list had been released and 23 others could be released. Among the names were Roueida Kanaan, Qamar el-Khatib, Randa el-Hajj Awwad, Zahiya Abd el-Nabi, Yasmine el-Bushli, Dallal el-Kurdi, Houriya Ayyache, Hanadi el-Hussein and Majdoline el-Bayer.

The demand emphasized Suja el-Deilami, which convinced those following the negotiations that Abu Azzam el-Kuwaiti was only a public front and that the real negotiators were elsewhere because at no point during the negotiations was al-Kuwaiti capable of responding to the proposals forwarded to him. Thus it became clear afterward that he was no more than an intermediary in the negotiations which were being determined by other parties in Jabhat al-Nusra, which is led remotely by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the amir of al-Nusra in the Levant.

Negotiations stalled on the Syrian track at the beginning of this year and the Qatari channel started to be activated. Last month, Qatari envoys visited the mountainous region around Arsal and began to speak directly with the kidnapping groups, but without the slightest progress. The kidnappers provided a list of names of detained Syrian women, including no less than 1000 names, to General Ibrahim but Syrian authorities did not agree to negotiate about it, not considering it to be serious.

It is noteworthy that the list contained around 150 names of Islamist detainees in Roumieh prison [in Lebanon], most of whom are non-Lebanese nationals. General Ibrahim's position, in coordination with President Michel Sleiman and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, firmly refused to negotiate the release of any prisoner at Roumieh.

Situations in the Field Motivated Renewed Negotiations

The Syrian official who was following the negotiations said that they received new life several days ago after significant developments took place regarding the situation in Yabroud, similar to those surrounding the Azaz deal.

The Battle of Qalamoun has been raging for the past two weeks and militant groups, which include thousands of fighters on all fronts, have been dispersed. The first kidnapper, Mithqal Hamama was killed in one of the Syrian Army's ambushes in the region, which freed the hand of the other negotiators.

A week ago the kidnappers decided to leave the house of Georges Haswani in the city, since the Syrian army was drawing near and strategic hills around Rima farms around Yabroud were falling to Hezbullah and the Republican Guard. The nuns were divided up among a number of locations in Yabroud. The issue of the nuns was again in force, in order to barter them for something more than ransom. Two days ago "Abu Yazan", leader of Liwa al-Ghuraba in Qalamoun renewed contact with the Syrian government via Qatari channels, asking for the completion of the deal to be sped up and stipulating the delivery of 16 million dollars, the release of those whose names were on the list and once more adding the name of Suja el-Deilami, her three Iraqi children and her husband. Abu Yazan opened the military and security side of the negotiations, asking for a ceasefire around Yabroud and and end to it being shelled. He also requested that safe corridors be opened for the withdrawal of 1500  men from Yabroud towards Rankous and Arsal, however this condition was categorically rejected.

A Syrian source says that the Qataris paid the ransom and that the Syrian authorities agreed to release the detainees, but the military and security side of things was completely excluded from any of the negotiations.

Via as-Safir, General Ibrahim expressed his thanks to the Syrian leadership, which provided all the necessary facilities for accomplishing this deal. He likewise singled out for thanks the Qatari leadership, who accompanied the deal. He said that the Lebanese president accompanied him constantly at all stages of the process of negotiations, which were extremely painstaking and during which Lebanon refused to offer any concession that would affect its sovereignty.  He stated that he will not retreat from the task he had sworn to before Lebanese popular opinion, working to free the two kidnapped bishops.

Ibrahim affirmed that "the nuns of Maaloula are well and are in good health." He said, "We committed ourselves to everything we promised, but the kidnappers attempted to abandon the agreement in the last hours. However, we refused any bargaining."

Patriarch  John X Yazigi contacted General Ibrahim, thanking him for the efforts he made for the nuns' release.

Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri welcomed "the step of releasing the nuns of the Monastery of Maaloula and their safe return to their church and their families." He opined that "all kidnappings and detainments contradict the most basic human rights and bring condemnation upon their perpetrators, regardless of their pretexts and rationales."

Prime Minister Najib Mikati congratulated the nuns on their freedom, expressing hop for "an end to the cycle of violence in Syria."


Anonymous said...

Where are the orphans?

Samn! said...

The three helpers (who have variously been described as orphans or postulants, I suppose they could be both or neither) were released with the nuns. As I understand it, all the other orphans were evacuated to Damascus when most of Maaloula's residents fled, immediately prior to the rebel assault on the town in December.

Anonymous said...

The video only shows women in monastic garb. I deeply resent our hierarchs misleading the faithful in this regard. We were asked to pray for "Mother Pelagia, her nuns and orphans." This implies that little children were kidnapped with the monastics. Seems very manipulative.

Anonymous said...

Deeply resent? Really? Manipulative? Perhaps you are just looking for more ways to cast aspersions on "our" hierarchs?

The situation was repugnant and sad and worthy of our prayers whether it was nuns and orphans who were kidnapped or just the nuns. The monastery was a place of peace and care for those in great need. Its residents should not have to worry about being a target for armed aggression. Thank God they are safe.

Sam, thanks for reporting this. Good news indeed!