Today Lebanon’s head of General Security, General Abbas Ibrahim, said that 13 Syrian nuns and three maids kidnapped in early December were released after negotiators had worked out “logistical obstacles” for their handover.
The women are now in the custody of Lebanese security forces, according to Naharnet. The decision to release the women comes after months of negotiations involving the Assad regime, Lebanese officials, the Qatari government, and the captors.
The nuns were kidnapped on Dec. 2, when the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and allied rebels took over the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. The following day, Vatican Radio said that the nuns were moved to Yabroud, 13 miles to the north, where they have been kept until now.
Later that month, Al Monitor reported that the Al Nusrah kidnappers were holding out for military concessions in exchange for the nuns’ freedom. It also noted that three separate negotiations channels had been opened — by a Syrian figure, Qatari officials, and the United Nations — and that the Vatican had sought to open a fourth channel.
The negotiations were complicated by the fact that Free Syrian Army officials were involved in the kidnapping and transferral of the nuns from Maaloula to Yabroud and had sought immunity as part of the deal, according to the Al Monitor report. Mithqal Hamama, an FSA official, “played a major role in taking the nuns out of the Mar Taqla monastery in Maaloula after he and a group of fighters of the Tahrir al Sham Brigade stormed the monastery.” The Tahrir al Sham brigade is an FSA unit based primarily in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that is rumored to be funded by Qatar. Ahmad al Maqmabar, another FSA official, was also said to be involved in the negotations.
Incidentally, there seems to be very little reporting on the Tahrir al Sham, although last May it claimed to be the victim of chemical attacks in Jobar (note that the OPCW described an Aug. 24 chemical weapons attack in Jobar as being small-scale and directed at regime forces). In August, the Tahrir al Sham claimed it targeted the convoy of President Bashar al Assad. Moreover, there is very little information to be found on the nature and identity of the rebel groups backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In October 2012, The New York Times reported that “the [arms] shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.”
Hamama allegedly took the nuns to his home town of al-Sakhra in Qalamoun, where they were handed over to the Al Nusrah Front, which moved them to Yabroud. Once in Yabroud, they were held by a local Al Nusrah emir, Abu Malek al Tilli, a Syrian, and his deputy Hamdi Abu Azzam al Kuwaiti, Al Monitor explained.
On March 6, a source told Agence France Presse that negotiators had lost contact with the nuns, and that they were being held by an Al Nusrah Front group headed by Abu Malek al Kuwaiti.
In addition to security guarantees, Al Nusrah was demanding a number of military concessions as well as the release of hundreds of regime detainees. It is unclear to what extent the captors’ demands were met in the recent deal. The December Al Monitor article noted: “Someone involved in the negotiations told As-Safir that the army’s advance toward Yabrud will not leave Jabhat al-Nusra with a lot of options and that protecting the nuns may become a burden for the kidnappers in the coming days.”
Yabroud is currently the site of heavy fighting between regime forces and Hezbollah fighters against rebels, including the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, and the Islamic Front. Today Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka al-Khoury credited recent gains by regime forces with helping to free the nuns, observing that “[w]hat the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process,” according to Reuters.
Today’s report in Naharnet, which cites Sky News Arabia, states that the deal for the nuns’ freedom called for “the release of 153 detainees from the prisons of the Syrian regime.” Reuters quoted a rebel source as saying the deal involved the release of 138 female prisoners.