Lebanon Pulse

Beirut close to striking deal with Jabhat al-Nusra for release of servicemen

Article Summary
A source confirmed to Al-Monitor that Lebanon might be holding negotiations with al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra over the possible release of Lebanese prisoners in exchange for financial compensation.

A senior Lebanese security official who requested anonymity confirmed to Al-Monitor that negotiations between Lebanese authorities and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra concerning Lebanese army prisoners held by al-Nusra since Aug. 2, 2014, have concluded. According to the official, this does not mean that implementation of the agreement would occur anytime soon or that a date for implementation has been set.

The prisoners were taken hostage by armed terrorists in the aftermath of a clash between the Lebanese army and armed groups in the vicinity of Lebanon’s desolate lands of Arsal, situated in central Bekaa in eastern Lebanon, adjacent to the Lebanese-Syrian border.

The security official explained to Al-Monitor that negotiations took many months of discussions and brokered efforts, as well as a long series of back-and-forth trips between Beirut, Doha and Ankara. He said some Qatari and Turkish officials played positive roles in the negotiations. At the conclusion, the Lebanese side reached a comprehensive understanding with Jabhat al-Nusra militants holding captive 16 people from the Lebanese army and Internal Security in their rugged mountainous strongholds along the border region between Lebanon and Syria — which extends for dozens of square kilometers within Lebanon’s central Bekaa and Syria’s Qalamoun regions.

The same official revealed that the deal, concluded weeks ago, included several points, chief among them the liberation of the Lebanese soldiers in return for the release from Lebanese jails of a number of detainees suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. The names, identities and numbers of the subjects were detailed in the deal.

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The official refrained from revealing any specifics in that regard. He did confirm that those included on the list had yet to be convicted in court and were merely detainees pending further investigations. They were also certainly not involved in terrorist operations perpetrated against the Lebanese army but are being investigated for lesser crimes such as associating with terrorists or providing them with support. Furthermore, among those detainees were two women — the ex-wives of Jabhat al-Nusra officials.

Another aspect of the agreement — which the security official did not deny — was that the deal included financial terms. While the official affirmed that the Lebanese side was not party to and is unaware of any details in that regard, he did indicate that the deal included the payment of a certain amount of money to Jabhat al-Nusra militants — not by Lebanese authorities but by an international third party. The official refused to give any further details on that party.

With regard to the implementation and factual translation of the terms of the agreement, the Lebanese official admitted that a relatively long period of time had elapsed since the deal was concluded weeks ago, without the setting of a zero hour for its execution. The official said the Jabhat al-Nusra militants may have had second thoughts about the agreement, without completely forsaking it. They, therefore, intentionally put the whole issue on hold, while refraining from reneging on it. Jabhat al-Nusra did not inform the mediators of any potential dates for the deal’s implementation.

The Lebanese official stated that he found it likely that Jabhat al-Nusra’s hesitation was linked to military and battlefield developments in the areas surrounding them — primarily the advance of the Syrian army and Hezbollah troops along positions adjoining Jabhat al-Nusra emplacements or hiding spots. The main development in that regard was the Syrian army and Hezbollah’s advance in the Zabadani region west of Damascus, on the eastern flank of Jabhat al-Nusra positions starting the first week of July.

In his analysis, the Lebanese official said the kidnappers now feared being completely trapped by Hezbollah on one side and the Syrian army on the other, and wanted to use the Lebanese captives as bargaining chips to break any such siege.

The official also stated that Lebanese authorities were ready to deal with such an eventuality and awaited a message from the militants in that regard, in order to initiate talks with Damascus and Doha aimed at providing the militants with a safe route out of Lebanon’s eastern hinterlands to wherever they wanted to go inside Syria, in exchange for their implementing the agreement and releasing their Lebanese captives.

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Found in: al-qaeda, syrian-lebanese relations, soldiers, prisoners, prisoner exchange, lebanon crisis, jabhat al-nusra, beirut

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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