[Published here August 24, 2014]
After some initial success, negotiations for the release of over 30 Lebanese hostages held by the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra took a turn for the worse this weekend, when the Lebanese religious institution mediating the talks suspended their involvement. Citing challenges in securing the militants’ demands, the Muslim Scholars Committee said it would “make way for other intermediaries” to get involved. But with the militants reportedly refusing to work with anyone but the committee, the hostage negotiations may be in freefall.
The 38 captives, all members of either the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) or Internal Security Forces (ISF), were taken by militants during five days of clashes in Arsal earlier this month. They are being held by local branches of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in the no-man’s-land between Lebanon and Syria. The Muslim Scholars Committee had made at least one trip to Arsal’s dusty outskirts to negotiate face-to-face with Abu Talal, the local head of the IS, who is reportedly holding 11 of the hostages. Abu Malek, Jabhat al-Nusra’s local chieftain, is believed to be holding around 25. Recently-published videos appear to show the captives in good health, but visibly shaken.
After nearly two weeks of grueling negotiations, it appeared the Muslim Scholars Committee had finally gained the militants’ trust. On August 17, Jabhat al-Nusra released two members of the ISF as a good-will gesture, and the IS had promised to release an LAF soldier in the following two days. Things were looking up for the negotiators, who felt their hard work was finally paying off.
Sadly, events in the past week have led to a complete turnaround. According to Committee member Sheikh Samih Ezzedine, the IS had a sudden change of heart about its upcoming hostage release. Threatening to behead its captives, the IS told the Muslim Scholars Committee it wouldn’t release any more hostages before “seeing some positive signs from the Lebanese government.”
The IS’s hardening stance came with the withdrawal of a key interlocutor, Abu Shamel. A Syrian cleric who heads a militant group in Syria’s Qalamoun region, Abu Shamel had been central in setting up the direct talks between the Muslim scholars and the militants. In his absence, the scholars’ communication with the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra began to falter.
The Committee’s talks with the Lebanese government weren’t faring much better. Ezzedine said the government had been agonizingly slow in responding to the militants’ demands, which included the release of an unidentified number of Syrian Islamists from the notorious Roumieh prison. Although none of the names have officially been made public, it’s expected that Abu Ahmad al-Jumaa, the local IS leader whose arrest sparked the Arsal clashes, would be among them. The government has been silent on this and other, humanitarian demands that sought better treatment for Arsal’s 100,000-strong Syrian refugee population.
In just one week, the Committee’s optimism over progress in the talks had turned to profound exasperation. After a nearly two-hour meeting with the Council of Ministers on Friday, the Muslim scholars decided to suspend their involvement in the negotiations.
“We have the military telling us what we did is worthless. We have the militants telling us what we offer them is worthless. I have the families of the hostages calling me every day,” said Sheikh Hussam al-Ghali, a member of the Committee who strongly favored withdrawal from the negotiations, in unofficial remarks. “We got two members of the security forces released, and people are telling me it doesn’t mean anything.”
After working to gain both the militants’ and the government’s trust, the Committee’s withdrawal deals a significant blow to the momentum of the negotiations at a time when the stakes are higher than ever. On Friday evening, Jabhat al-Nusra released a short video of the captured soldiers and ISF members, calling for Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria. “If you don’t withdraw from Syria, these people will kill us,” said one ISF officer.
Those with knowledge of the talks say they don’t expect much progress if the scholars aren’t involved. “We’re very upset that they pulled out,” said Abu Ibrahim, a community leader in Arsal who had been facilitating the negotiations logistically. “We thought they’d be the ones to bring us success and bring the captives home.”
He believes the impending vacuum may be filled by Lebanon’s head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim. Ibrahim previously worked with Turkey and Qatar to secure the release of 13 nuns being held by Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Muslim Scholars Committee believes he might prove more successful than they have been.
“We’re not a political entity – we don’t do political work,” insisted Ezzedine. “If Abbas Ibrahim gets involved, supported by Turkey and Qatar, he may be able to answer to more of the militants’ demands.” Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouk has insisted in written remarks that Lebanon would be working to free the captives without any outside help. If Ibrahim gets involved, it would mark the first direct negotiations between the Lebanese government and the Islamic State.
But the road to the captives’ release won’t be simple. According to Abu Ibrahim, Jabhat al-Nusra and the IS will refuse to release the soldiers to anyone but the Muslim Scholars Committee. Adding to the challenges, Lebanon’s Council of Ministers has adamantly expressed its opposition to “compromising” with Jabhat al-Nusra and the IS – a position the Committee said would “close the door to the negotiations.”
After an initial period of hope, it seems the hostages’ release will be much more complicated – and more drawn out – than originally expected.