How the Maaloula nuns were freed

The Maaloula nuns' kidnappers tried but failed to obtain a cease-fire from the Syrian regime.

al-monitor The nuns who were freed after being held by Syrian rebels for more than three months arrive at the Syrian border with Lebanon, at the Jdeidet Yabous crossing, March 10, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

syria, rebels, lebanon, kidnapping, civil war

Mar 11, 2014

Shortly before midnight yesterday [March 9], the suffering of the 13 Maaloula nuns and their three aides ended with their being freed. Another kidnapping file in Syria was closed. It was a case similar to that of the kidnapped Lebanese in Azaz in terms of battlefield pressure, which tightened the noose around the kidnappers, the role played by the Lebanese General Security Directorate and regional mediators and the details of the exchange deal. So the next question is what about the kidnapped bishops [Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi]?

The last few meters of the nuns’ trip to freedom were not easy. There were a lot of breaths held and ups and downs in expectations before the matter ended in the early hours of the morning as [the nuns] reached Jdeidet Yabous, where they were received by the mediator who played a key role in their release, the director of the General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim. Also present was a delegation representing the Orthodox patriarchate, the Syrian minister of endowments, the bishop of Damascus, the governor of Damascus and some who had followed the nuns’ case from A to Z.

The nuns’ release was the culmination of long and thorny negotiations, which lasted for three months and involved various states, especially Qatar, and were mediated by Ibrahim under the auspices of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

The freed nuns’ reached Jdeidet Yabous from a point inside Syria, accompanied by a convoy from the General Security Directorate, one of whose patrols had received the 16 nuns and aides at Wadi Ata in the barren environs of Arsal. The release operation had hit a snag yesterday evening due to last-minute pressure by the kidnappers to amend the terms [for release], which almost threatened to scuttle the deal. But the kidnappers then agreed to the original terms after Ibrahim categorically refused any attempt to separate or amend the provisions of the deal.

It has been learned that in the last minutes before the exchange, the kidnappers proposed increasing the number of female detainees they were demanding be released — whereby eight nuns would be released first and the rest later — and that the Syrian government release dozens of female detainees in multiple stages as well. Ibrahim refused that proposal. He told the kidnappers [that] the deal would be either implemented as agreed upon, and all the nuns would be released together, or the entire operation would be canceled.

Ibrahim had left General Security officers at the drop off point for the nuns in the barren surroundings of Arsal. Before they set out for Beirut [after the kidnappers changed their demands], Ibrahim ordered them to return to the point that was agreed upon for the exchange, because the kidnappers had withdrawn their new demands and informed the Qatari mediator that they were willing to proceed with the deal without amendments.

What provided impetus to the negotiations was that the Syrian army conditioned that the nuns be released within 24 hours in conjunction with the battlefield situation around Yabrud, where the nuns were being held. That prompted the gunmen to agree on the deal as is.

Freeing the Maaloula nuns emerged as part of a deal involving the release of female detainees in Syrian prisons (more than 150 according to Ibrahim) and giving the kidnappers $16 million, which Qatar agreed to pay. Qatar’s intelligence chief, Ghanem al-Qubaisi, arrived in Lebanon Saturday night [March 8]. (He had been following the negotiations since Thursday from Istanbul, in daily coordination with Ibrahim, who had cut short a visit to Moscow and quickly returned to Beirut.)

The details of the exchange deal

What about the laborious process that preceded the happy ending? How did the exchange deal reach maturity? As-Safir is publishing the entire story in its successive stages.

Intermittent and complex negotiations took place in the period between the abduction of the Maaloula nuns on Dec. 3, 2013, and yesterday evening. Three different channels negotiated with the deputy emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, at his headquarters in Yabrud, before a mutual understanding was reached.

In the wake of the kidnapping, two negotiating tracks were launched on the basis of the nuns being "guests" who could easily be freed, because they were not hostages. This scenario was repeated by Syrian opposition figures such as Michel Kilo to provide political cover for the kidnapping. After the abduction, Kilo had said that the Maaloula nuns were the guests of a friend in Yabrud and had not been kidnapped.

In the first few weeks, before the Qataris joined the negotiations, Kuwaiti (the deputy of Abu Malik, the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun) had taken the nuns from Mithqal Hamama, their original kidnapper and a smuggler between Lebanon and Syria. Hamama is one of the leaders of the Sarkha Brigades, the group that kidnapped the nuns during the second attack on Maaloula on Dec. 2.

At first, the kidnappers approached the United Nations' office in Damascus and its head representative, Mokhtar Lamani, but Lamani refused to go to Yabrud and negotiate directly with Jabhat al-Nusra after talking with Kuwaiti via Skype. UN headquarters, in New York, had instructed Lamani to reject any direct contact with Jabhat al-Nusra, which is on the terrorists list. So, the negotiations stopped.

A second track opened in parallel with the faltering UN track. A businessman from Yabrud, George Hasswani, played a prominent role in the negotiations. He was not a mediator in the strict sense of the word. Hasswani is close to the Syrian government, and he passed on and responded to the back-and-forth offers of exchange in coordination with Ibrahim. Hasswani sometimes restored the negotiating path with the kidnappers to its proper scope to gain time by responding to his one and only negotiator, Kuwaiti, who never took off his explosives belt while talking with Hasswani via Skype.

During the negotiations, the kidnappers and the hostages moved to Hasswani’s residence in Yabrud, which Jabhat al-Nusra had taken over in his absence. Hasswani paid the costs for the kidnappers living in his three-story residence to improve the conditions under which the nuns were being held and to make talking to them every day easier. (The nuns appeared twice in three months on two videotapes.)

The kidnappers repeated that they were not looking for a ransom and that all they wanted was to exchange the nuns for female detainees in Syrian government prisons. At first, the kidnappers presented a list with hundreds of names, before settling on 138. They insisted that the negotiations would only continue if the Syrian government made a goodwill gesture and released an Iraqi prisoner named Saja Hamid al-Dulaimi, the wife of an Iraqi al-Qaeda official. Syrian authorities had detained Saja along with three of her children in an operation outside Damascus.

The Syrian government rejected the request because Dulaimi was not a Syrian detainee and said that not all the names submitted by Kuwaiti were being held by the government. The Syrian government said that it had no information on 66 of the 138 names, released 10, and said that 23 others could be released. Among the names were Ruwaida Kanaan, Qamar al-Khatib, Randa al-Hajj, Awad and Zahiya Abdul Nabi, Yasmine al-Balshi, Dalal al-Kurdi, Huriya Ayyash, Hanadi al-Hussein and Majdeline al-Bayir.

Those following the negotiations became convinced that by requesting Dulaimi’s release, Kuwaiti was only a front for the true negotiators, who were somewhere else. During the negotiations, Kuwaiti was never able to respond to the offers made to him. It later became apparent that he was no more than an intermediary, controlled by other parties in Jabhat al-Nusra, which is led by Abu Mohammed Golani, Nusra’s emir in the Levant.

The negotiations on the Syrian track stalled earlier this year, and the Qatari track was activated in coordination with Maj. Gen. Ibrahim during the last month. Qatari envoys visited the area around the mountains in Arsal and began to speak directly with the kidnappers but without making the slightest progress. The kidnappers gave Ibrahim a list with the names of no less than 1,000 Syrian female detainees. The Syrian authorities refused to negotiate and considered the list non-serious.

It was noteworthy that the list contained some 150 names of Islamist detainees in Roumieh prison, most of whom were not Lebanese nationals. Maj. Gen. Ibrahim’s position, in coordination with President Suleiman and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, was to categorically refuse to negotiate the release of any prisoners in Roumieh.

The battlefield reality revived the negotiations

A Syrian official who followed the negotiations said that the negotiations were revived a few days ago after important developments in Yabrud that were similar to the circumstances surrounding the deal in Azaz.

During the past two weeks, the Qalamoun battle had been raging. The combatants, which consisted of 10,000 fighters on all fronts, then dispersed. The original kidnapper, Mithqal Hamama, was killed, which freed the hands of the other negotiators.

A week ago, the kidnappers decided to leave Hasswani’s residence in Yabrud as the Syrian army approached and the strategic hills around the Rima Farms, on the outskirts of Yabrud, fell into the hands of Hezbollah and the Republican Guard. The nuns were separated and taken to a number of sites in Yabrud.

The nuns issue returned in full force, [this time] to exchange them for more than a ransom. Two days earlier, Abu Yazin, the head of the al-Ghuraba brigade in Qalamoun, had reopened contacts with the Syrian government via the Qatari mediator. Abu Yazin called for quickly making a deal. He requested $16 million and the release of the female detainees on a list. He added the names of Saja al-Dulaimi, her three children, and her husband.

Abu Yazin wanted to make security and military matters part of the deal. He requested a cease-fire around Yabrud and a cessation of the bombing of Yabrud. He also requested corridors for the withdrawal of 1,500 gunmen from Yabrud to Rankous and Arsal, but that condition was flatly rejected.

According to a Syrian source, the Qataris agreed to pay the ransom, and the Syrian authorities agreed to release the detainees. But introducing security and military matters into the exchange deal was entirely ruled out.

Maj. Gen. Ibrahim thanked, via As-Safir, the Syrian leadership, which provided all the facilities necessary to complete the exchange deal. He also thanked the Qatari leadership that shepherded the deal and said that the Lebanese president had followed minute by minute all the stages of the negotiating process, which was very strenuous, and through which Lebanon refused to provide any concession that affected its sovereignty. He said that he would follow up on his promise to try to obtain the release of the kidnapped bishops.

Ibrahim stressed, “The Maaloula nuns are fine and in good health. ... We have abided by our commitments but the kidnappers tried to deviate from the agreement in the final hours. But we refused any bargains.”

Patriarch John X Yazigi called Ibrahim and thanked him for his efforts leading to the nuns’ release.

Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri praised the “step to release the nuns of the Maaloula monastery and their safe return to their churches and relatives. ... All kidnappings and detentions are contrary to the most basic human rights and subject the perpetrators to condemnation whatever the pretexts and justifications.” He expressed the hope that the nuns’ release would be “a prelude to the release of the bishops Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi.”

Former Prime Minister Mikati congratulated the nuns on their freedom and hoped that the cycle of violence in Syria ends.

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