The nuns of Maaloula may soon be in Lebanon, their abductors’ last refuge, if mediation and open channels with them do not quickly reach a solution, before the Syrian army’s attack on Yabrud expands in the next few days with the launch of the second phase of the military operation in Qalamoun.
There are 12 kidnapped nuns — four Lebanese and eight Syrians. Three negotiating channels have taken turns trying to find out what the kidnappers want in exchange for releasing them.
That the kidnappers immediately agreed to multilateral negotiations is cause for optimism because this is the first time Jabhat al-Nusra has wanted to quickly make a deal to release hostages it is holding. In the past, it took months before the fate of kidnapped persons was revealed or before the kidnappers agreed to negotiate.
The negotiating channels have no direct representative from the Syrian government, which only receives requests or monitors what’s going on from a distance. There is a local negotiating channel led by a Syrian figure who has helped in releasing hostages in the past. There is also a Qatari channel that started working two days ago. And there’s a negotiating channel with the UN.
A source in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Qalamoun said that a negotiator from the Vatican had tried to open a fourth channel and to engage directly with the kidnappers. He offered a good deal of money in exchange for the nuns’ release. But money was not part of Jabhat al-Nusra’s conditions. Alongside Jabhat al-Nusra’s emirs in Yabrud are Mithqal Hamama and Ahmad al-Maqmabar, two local FSA officials. They are trying to play a part in the release in exchange for part of the ransom and personal security guarantees.
Maqmabar is from the village of al-Mashrafa (Flita), and Hamama is from Bakhaa, in al-Sakhra, Qalamoun. Hamama played a major role in taking the nuns out of the Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula after he and a group of fighters of the Tahrir al-Sham Brigade stormed the monastery. Tahrir al-Sham comprises 1,200 fighters and is led by Firas al-Bitar. It mainly operates in Ghouta and Qalamoun. Firas al-Bitar is from Qalamoun.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which spearheaded the attack on Maaloula last weekend, took control of the nuns after the latter were taken to al-Sakhra by Hamama. The nuns were then taken to Yabrud, which is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra emir Abu Malek al-Tilli, a Syrian, and his deputy Hamdi Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, a Kuwaiti-Syrian (his mother and wife are Syrian).
The negotiations resulted in an international channel for negotiating with Jabhat al-Nusra to release the nuns and four orphans who were with the nuns. Jabhat al-Nusra had taken all of them to al-Sakhra. Then Tilli and his deputy took custody of the nuns and orphans. Kuwaiti is negotiating on Tilli’s behalf. The Qataris then got involved in the negotiations after Lebanese General Security Director Major General Abbas Ibrahim visited Doha.
The UN tried, through Mokhtar Lamani (the personal representative of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab envoy to Syria), to play a role in facilitating the negotiations for the nuns’ release. Lamani tried to speak via Skype to the head nun, Mother Pelagia, but Kuwaiti insisted that Lamani go to Yabrud and negotiate face-to-face.
The UN refuses to send its diplomats to meet Jabhat al-Nusra leadership in Yabrud for security and legal reasons, including the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra is on the terrorism list. Moreover, Kuwaiti didn’t put forward any clear demands over which to negotiate. Lamani said he would go to Yabrud only to take the nuns. That closed the international negotiating channel with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Soon after, the local Syrian negotiating channel was activated and received security and military demands in return for the nuns. Of course, the Syrian authorities will not accept any of the military or security conditions requested by Kuwaiti, who is the one negotiating. No negotiator has yet been able to talk directly to Tilli. Kuwaiti’s conditions ranged from releasing the nuns in return for shipments of flour and food to besieged areas in East Ghouta and lifting the siege on Maadamieh al-Sham. According to one negotiator, those demands might be acceptable.
All those who negotiated with Kuwaiti say that he requested the release of a thousand detainees from the Syrian regime’s prisons. But no one has received a list of their names despite more than a week of negotiating. What blocked the negotiations was a request by Jabhat al-Nusra to halt the military operation by the Syrian army in Qalamoun. Kuwaiti put forth a list of military conditions through his negotiators. He demanded that the Syrian army checkpoint at Maaloula’s entrance be dismantled, that the Syrian army evacuate the strategic Cherubim monastery overlooking Seydnaya and that the Syrian army unit based in a Qara monastery be withdrawn. He also demanded that the “Christian areas,” as he called them, be emptied of any Syrian army presence in order to keep those areas out of the conflict.
The negotiators suspect that Jabhat al-Nusra’s man in Yabrud is not the one making the final decision. They think he is just a mediator who is likely receiving orders from an outside party setting the course and conditions of the negotiations, which became complicated in the last few hours, after Jabhat al-Nusra’s threat to send the nuns to Lebanon.
That threat was accompanied by the arrival of Abu Hassan al-Arsali to Yabrud two days ago. He is an FSA official in Arsal and one of the supervisors of the supply operations from Lebanese territory. It was not clear, however, whether that was directly related to the nuns’ issue or to the threat of sending them to Lebanon.
The Qatari involvement in the mediation in the last hours appears to be promising, after the issue of the nuns entered the race against the military operation in Yabrud. There are conflicting predictions about how that will impact the negotiations. Someone involved in the negotiations told As-Safir that the army’s advance toward Yabrud will not leave Jabhat al-Nusra with a lot of options and that protecting the nuns may become a burden for the kidnappers in the coming days.