Assad military advance in western Syria pushed deal that led to nuns’ release, official says

McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 10, 2014 

APTOPIX Mideast Syria

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a group of nuns who were freed after being held by rebels, greet church officials at the Syrian border town of Jdeidat Yabous, early Monday, March. 10, 2014.

SANA — AP

— The deal that saw the release over the weekend of 13 Syrian nuns who'd been abducted in December by anti-government fighters happened largely because rebel forces fear they are about to lose control of the area where the nuns were being held.

Lebanese security officials familiar with the details of the negotiations for the nuns' release said both sides realized that as government forces surrounded the rebel stronghold of Yabroud, they faced the possibility that the nuns would be killed, either by their captors or in a crossfire. Such a result would not only mean the death of the nuns, but also eliminate any possibility of a ransom being paid for their release.

The complex series of negotiations involved the head of Qatar’s intelligence services, a pro-Syrian regime Lebanese intelligence officer, the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, the Syrian government and the rebel group that abducted the nuns from the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla monastery in Maloula in early December.

The nuns were transferred to the custody of Lebanese authorities late Sunday in exchange for the government’s release of 153 prisoners as well as a sizable ransom payment made to the original kidnappers, according to public statements by both sides and private statements by intelligence officials familiar with the process.

A Lebanese security official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the delicate negotiations, said that the progress of Syrian government troops and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement against rebel forces in an area known as the Qalamoun was the spark that drove the deal.

“The regime’s and Hezbollah’s progress in Qalamoun over the last week meant Yabroud was increasingly surrounded,” the official said. “The Nusra Front realized they had to act quickly to get any sort of deal from the regime or they would risk seeing the nuns freed or, worse, killed in a crossfire.”

Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for the Human Rights said the government freed 150 women prisoners and three children in exchange for the nuns. His account was confirmed by the head of Lebanon’s General Security directorate, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who has close ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Last year, Ibrahim successfully negotiated the release of 11 Lebanese Shiite religious pilgrims who’d been held for more than a year by rebels in northern Syria.

The nuns were abducted Dec. 3 when Syrian rebels took control of the Syrian town of Maaloula, the home of several monasteries and early Christian religious sites. A rebel group fighting in the area that called itself the Free Brigades of Qalamoun said at the time that the nuns had been taken “for their own protection.”

The nuns were then transferred to the custody of the Nusra Front in Yabroud, which described the women as “guests” who would be exchanged for women prisoners held by the Syrian government. A series of escalating demands followed, including the condition that Syria and Lebanon release all of their Islamist prisoners.

But it was the advance of pro-government forces that really moved the negotiations to a close, the Lebanese official said.

“Nusra knew they would never hurt these nuns and that their deaths by accident would be a disaster, so they opened negotiations through Qatari intelligence to get women and children released and a ransom for the original kidnappers,” he said.

The official said that Nusra appeared genuinely concerned that the nuns not fall into the hands of other rebel groups – including the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has specifically targeted Syrian Christians in other regions.

“They were very specific that no ransom would be paid to Nusra, but rather their demands were only humanitarian,” the official said. “But they did make an agreement with the kidnappers when they took control of the nuns that the first rebel group would be paid.”

According to local media reports and people familiar with the case, Gen. Ibrahim negotiated with the Assad government while Qatari intelligence officials used their contacts in rebel units funded by Qatar to negotiate directly with Nusra’s Qalamoun commander and to arrange for the original kidnappers to receive a ransom payment, which the intelligence official described as in the “low millions of dollars.”

The resolution of the kidnapping case came just days after the release of a Danish freelance television journalist whose freedom also appeared to be the result of increased fighting in Qalamoun, a mountainous area along the border with Lebanon. Danish officials told wire services that a deal came into place after concerns on both sides over the intensity of nearby fighting forced both sides to reduce their demands.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

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