November 8, 2013

The Middle East is a complex structure of wheels which spin one another. Normally, a small wheel spins a bigger one. In the Middle East however, sometimes it is the opposite. Sometimes a big wheel spins a smaller one. The following story also demonstrates that well.

The story begins in May 2012 when a group of eleven Lebanese Shiites described as “Pilgrims” were kidnapped in Syria on their way back to Lebanon from Iran. According to accumulating information evaluated as reliable, among the kidnapped were senior military and political activists of Hezbollah (read more about that incident in my article “Nasrallah Gets a Taste of his own Bitter Medicine” published on June 21, 2012).

Eventually the kidnappers’ identity was revealed. It was a Syrian rebel group named “A’sifat A-Shimal” (the Storm of the North) operating in the area of A’zaz, a city located in northern Syria close to the Syrian–Turkish border. Reportedly, the group demanded the release of Syrian women imprisoned in Syrian jails in return for the release of the Lebanese prisoners.

As the incident dragged on and no solution was found, the relatives of the kidnapped Lebanese became more and more critical of the Lebanese government as well as of the Turkish government. They claimed that, in addition to the military support and medical treatment Turkey provides the Syrian rebels, they were also providing shelter for the kidnappers.

A few months ago two of the Lebanese hostages were released. Hope soared that the release of the rest was imminent! However, nothing happened and the families became more frustrated. In August 2013 an interesting development happened. Two Turkish commercial pilots were kidnapped in broad daylight on the highway leading to Beirut’s International airport. The professional execution of the operation, as well as the fact that the location was a stone’s throw from Hezbollah’s stronghold, caused the suspicion that it was an operation carried out by Hezbollah – who obviously denied it.

On Saturday, October 19, 2013, after year and a half in captivity, the nine remaining Lebanese hostages were released and went back to Lebanon. Their release was the outcome of a deal brokered by Qatar. The terms of the Qatar deal are not totally clear.

As of the time of the writing of this article two questions are left unanswered regarding the Syrian women prisoners who were allegedly released. The first question is – what is the number of female prisoners to be released according to the agreement? The kidnappers announce the total number as 333. No other figure has been provided to support or dispute that number. The second question is – how many female prisoners were actually released? On October 23 the Al-Jazeera News Network reported that sixty-two women were released and that additional prisoners may be released in the future. According to another source 158 women were released so far. Unverified information suggests that a Syrian court also ordered the immediate release of Tul Al-Muluhi, a famous female activist, who has been imprisoned since December 2009.

What is the reason for the mystery surrounding these questions? One possible explanation is that as part of the deal, Assad insists that the release of the imprisoned women will be done at a pace and at a time dictated by him so the release will not be perceived as a price Assad pays but rather as a gesture he makes. In other words – Assad does not want to be portrayed as someone who can be “extorted.”

One way or another one fact is clear – the nine Lebanese, accompanied by the Qatari Foreign Minister – flew to Beirut on board a Qatari airliner.

What made the deal possible and why now?

One explanation suggested is a recent military development in the area of A’zaz. According to reports, an Al-Qaeda affiliated organization named “Al Dawlah Al-Islamiyah Fi Al-Iraq Wal-Sham” (“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” – also known for its initials in Arabic as “Da’esh”) recently took over the major military stronghold of the kidnappers (the Storm of the North group). As result, the kidnappers were concerned that if the Lebanese prisoners were captured by the Al-Qaeda group they would be executed immediately. So they decided to release them.

Yet, that is not the real reason for the release of the Lebanese prisoners. The incident which generated the breakthrough is in fact two recent mile stones in the current policy of the US in the Middle East:
• The US-Russia agreement regarding the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons.
• The phone conversation between Obama and the Iranian President, signaling perhaps the beginning of a productive dialogue between the West and Iran.

How do these two events relate to the release of the Lebanese? The answer is Qatar.

Qatar, with a population of less than one million people, aspires to become a regional – even global – leading power. In June 2013 a “Silk Coup” took place in Qatar. The previous Amir (Ruler) Hamad Bin Jassim Al-Thani was overthrown by his son Tamim. As of now, it seems as if Qatar’s new Amir is conducting a foreign policy very similar to the one conducted by his father. Qatar conducts an aggressive, proactive foreign policy, using its two major weapons:
• Money. Qatar is investing huge funds in different states in the Middle East – and in Europe as well.
• The Al-Jazeera TV News Network. Established, owned and run by the Qatari Monarchy.

Qatar does not hesitate to conduct an independent foreign policy even if it does not comply with other Arab states in the Gulf and mostly the most powerful one – Saudi Arabia. A good example of that is Iran. While the Arab states make it clear that they view Iran’s nuclear program as the most serious strategic threat, Qatar keeps open communication channels with Iran. Qatar’s policy is guided by a simple concept; keeping good relations with Iran is an insurance policy that will serve Qatar’s interests when Iran is the regional superpower.

The two recent mile stones in US policy in the Middle East that I mentioned above make Qatar conclude that the current American administration is determined to avoid any military confrontation – including any action to delay or eliminate Iran’s military nuclear program – and is willing to accept an Iran with military nuclear capability.

As an outcome of that assessment, Qatar made two moves aimed to improve its relations with Iran. First, the Amir of Qatar recently called on Iran to “negotiate regional issues.” And second was a gesture towards Iran – releasing the Lebanese hostages. Why should Iran care about the hostages? Because releasing the kidnapped men takes some of the pressure off of Iran’s most important proxy – Hezbollah – who is struggling with increasing difficulties and challenges (on Hezbollah’s increasing challenges you can read for example my article “The Spider Caught in its Own Web” published on May 2013).

Why was Qatar able to guarantee the release of Lebanese held by the Syrian rebel group? The answer is easy: Qatar funds “A’sifat A-Shimal” (the Storm of the North) – the group that captured and held the Lebanese. The Qatari Foreign Minister arrived in Turkey last week (a week before the kidnapped were released) to give some big checks to the different rebel groups aimed to finance the continuation of their activities. He also met the group that had carried out the kidnapping. In addition to the check he gave them he also asked them to release the Lebanese. Qatar’s gesture was not left unreciprocated – Iran, in turn, put pressure on Assad to release the women prisoners in addition to the kidnapped.

In the regional power game Qatar scored a nice achievement. Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, also can be satisfied.

On the other hand, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who aspires to be the major leader of the Arab and Muslim world, is on the losing side of that story. Erdoğan presents himself as a powerful, determined leader who gets what he wants. However, in this chapter he failed to release the two Turkish citizens who were taken hostage. Erdoğan has to grind his tooth and watch Qatar – his rival for political influence – take the credit.

This story has one more interesting aspect. In captivity, the Lebanese hostages declared that they were being treated as “guests.” That description was suspect. Now, it is quite clear that this was not the case and the suspicions were accurate. Shortly after their release the Lebanese said that they had been treated “terribly.” One of the kidnapped – who to the best of my knowledge is a very senior Hezbollah person – said : “We paid dearly.” One can only guess what he meant by that. It is very likely that the Lebanese experienced intense interrogations and provided a lot of information about Iran and Hezbollah. If that is the case – one could wonder which Intelligence agencies received that information.