Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The internationally mediated deal that saw thirteen Lebanese and Syrian nuns freed in exchange for the reported release of over 150 women and children detained by the Syrian government continues to arouse confusion and controversy in the region.
In the wake of the arrival of the nuns in Damascus, supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have increased calls for Damascus to work harder to secure the release of other Syrian nationals held by the rebels, while Damascus claims that no more than 25 detainees were released as part of the prisoner exchange.
Syrian state news agency SANA quoted Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi as saying: “The number of people released in exchange for the Maaloula nuns is not more than 25 people whose hands had not been stained by the blood of the Syrian people.”
“Everything that has been said on this issue is not accurate and has been exaggerated,” he added.
Lebanon’s general security chief, Ibrahim Abbas, who helped mediate the prisoner exchange, had explicitly told the press that more than 150 prisoners would be freed as part of the deal.
Video footage of the prisoner exchange shows women and children being released in exchange for the nuns, who were kidnapped from a convent in the Old Quarter of the predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, on the outskirts of Damascus, in December.
The women and children are relatives of anti-Assad fighters evidently held by the Syrian government, which Damascus had previously denied. The video shows fighters reunited with family members, including children, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).
It was not clear from the video images if more than 25 hostages had been released by the Assad government in exchange for the Maaloula nuns, although one Al-Nusra Front fighter, identified as Abdullah Azzam, confirmed that the deal is for the release of 152 prisoners, including a mother and four children.
Azzam said: “We thank God for the release of the prisoners. And we pledge to God that we will not rest until we secure the release of every sister from the prisons of the tyrant [Assad].”
Retired Lebanese Army Brig. Gen. Amin Hoteit, an expert on Lebanese military and strategic affairs, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the prisoner exchange was the result of three factors.
The most important factor was “the military pressure exerted by the Syrian Army and its allies on Yabroud, making the kidnappers feel that their control over the fate of the nuns was not guaranteed, prompting them to agree to the deal,” Hoteit said.
He said the second factor was “the common interest between the kidnappers, the Al-Nusra Front, and Qatar, which finances it,” adding that “it was in the interests of the Al-Nusra Front to get rid of this burden [the nuns] and it was in Qatar’s interest to rescue the Al-Nusra Front from the repercussions of this.”
“It is [also] in Qatar’s interest to show itself as being active on the humanitarian front, excusing itself of direct responsibility for the kidnappers and portraying itself as mediators on their behalf,” Hoteit concluded.
Hoteit linked Qatar’s mediation efforts to the recent decision by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE to recall their ambassadors from Doha, in protest at what their governments said was Doha’s refusal to ratify a security agreement.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This is part of an attempt to break the isolation imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, and compete with Saudi Arabia in combating terrorism, in the sense that it is presenting itself as if it is working to combat the effects of terrorism.”
In line with a royal decree issued last month, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry last week published a list officially designating a number of groups as terrorist organizations, including the Al-Nusra Front.
Hoteit also praised the efforts of Ibrahim Abbas, saying that without his involvement the Qatari mediation efforts would have failed.
However, in comments to SANA Syrian Information Minister Oman Zoubi denied claims that the deal had been secured thanks to a mediation process involving Qatar.
“The operation . . . was carried out without any direct or indirect contact between Syria and Qatar,” he said.