24-07-2021 11:50 PM Jerusalem Timing

Lebanese Hostage Deal: 10 Months of Negotiations and $9 Million

Lebanese Hostage Deal: 10 Months of Negotiations and $9 Million

Turkey decided to seize the opportunity and facilitate the deal, after it became difficult for Erdogan to ignore the two Turkish hostages in Lebanon, with elections in Turkey around the corner.

Al-Akhbar Newspaper

Lebanese Freed Pilgrims

Nearly 10 months ago, Abbas Ibrahim, director general of Lebanese General Security, was in Turkey. In a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his intelligence director Hakan Fidan, Ibrahim explained at length the negative impact of the kidnapping of the Lebanese pilgrims in the Syrian town of Azaz on Lebanese-Turkish relations.

Ibrahim stressed that all information in the possession of the Lebanese side indicated the Turks had a lot of leverage over the kidnappers. Erdogan, still impressed with Ibrahim’s efforts to secure the release of two Turkish citizens kidnapped in Lebanon a few weeks earlier, turned to Fidan and said, “You have a maximum of two weeks to bring the Lebanese hostages and hand them over to General Ibrahim.”

Fidan promised to carry out the Turkish premier’s orders, but the two weeks passed, turning into weeks and then months, without any glimmer of hope. Ibrahim knew that the right moment had not yet come.

Indeed, it was all too clear to those following the hostage crisis that Turkey and Qatar were still wagering on extracting a political price from Hezbollah in return for releasing the hostages. But Ibrahim did not give up. He pressed ahead with his negotiation efforts, from Paris to Doha, and Ankara and Damascus.

Turkey decided to seize the opportunity and facilitate the deal, after it became difficult for Erdogan to ignore the two Turkish hostages in Lebanon, with elections in Turkey around the corner.

Ibrahim proposed to the Turks holding direct meetings with the kidnappers. He began his direct negotiations in the presence of Turkish and Qatari representatives. At some point, he snatched from the Turks a clear confession that they and the kidnappers were on the same side. This was in fact on the record, documented in the minutes of the negotiation meetings.

In Doha, Ibrahim obtained a promise from the emir to seek the hostages’ release. And in Damascus, Ibrahim secured a presidential pledge to do everything possible to facilitate the release of the kidnapped Lebanese pilgrims.

Ibrahim waited for the right moment, signs of which began to emerge a few weeks ago. Qatar decided to gradually pull out from the Syrian arena and open a new page with Hezbollah, Iran, and even the Syrian regime. For its part, Turkey has been flustered because of the growing role of al-Qaeda and its affiliates on both sides of its southern border. Meanwhile, the armed groups fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been declining day after day, under the blows of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Developments on the battlefield and in the political realm then intersected at a point that meant one thing: The time for releasing the Lebanese hostages kidnapped in Azaz had come. Ibrahim restarted his engines, shuttling from the United Nations in New York all the way to Doha, and many capitals in between.

He sought help from a secret mediator on good terms with the Kurds fighting in northern Syria, defending their towns and villages against extremist groups like ISIS. In truth, ISIS is on the cusp of completely uprooting the Northern Storm Brigade, which was detaining the hostages, pushing the latter’s fighters to flee in the direction of the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin, west of Azaz. The Kurds gave them safe passage, on the condition that they hand over their arms to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPD), and in some cases, YPD units even intervened militarily on the side of the Northern Storm.

At the suggestion of the secret mediator, Kurdish officials asked the Northern Storm to release the Lebanese hostages, in parallel with Qatari intervention, with Doha expressing its willingness to pay $9 million to four of the kidnappers’ leaders, and pledging to help them resettle in Europe. Doha feared the hostages would fall into the hands of ISIS, which would possibly execute them, at which point Hezbollah – and Iran – might blame their actions on Qatar and Turkey.

Turkey decided to seize the opportunity and facilitate the deal, after it became difficult for Erdogan to ignore the two Turkish hostages in Lebanon, with elections in Turkey around the corner. At the time, Liwa al-Tawhid replaced the Northern Storm at the Salama border crossing, protecting what is left of the Northern Storm in Azaz’s eastern countryside.

Ankara thus asked al-Tawhid to release the hostages, reminding the latter that it had the ability to close down the crossing, a cash cow for the Muslim Brother-affiliated militant group. Meanwhile, in Damascus, in preparation to fulfill its side of the bargain, it was requested that the deal would not be termed a prisoner swap.

Hence, everyone’s interests intersected, and the deal matured. Ibrahim then put the final touches on the exchange, and the hostages were moved last Wednesday, October 16, to Turkish soil, before being taken to Beirut on board a Qatari plane.