When US Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrived in Qatar yesterday, the country’s attention was focused on the return of roughly two dozen Qatari citizens who were held hostage in Iraq, including members of the royal family. Despite the allegation that tens of millions of dollars had been paid by Qatar to violent extremist groups and possibly terrorists as part of the exchange, the US ambassador to Doha welcomed the hostages’ return as “truly a blessed Friday,” highlighting the fraught nature of America’s relations with the tiny Gulf nation.
The Qatari hostages were captured during a hunting expedition in southern Iraq in Dec. 2015. Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia and US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, was widely suspected of holding them.
According to several news outlets, the release of the Qatari hostages was linked to the exchange of populations between two Shi’ite villages in Syria and two Sunni ones, as well as the release of hundreds of prisoners yesterday from Syrian jails. Sources close to the deal told Agence France-Press (AFP) that al Qaeda’s former Syrian branch was involved, agreeing to release “Lebanese fighters” from its control. This is likely a reference to some of the Lebanese Hezbollah operatives who were held by the group. The role of an al Qaeda-linked Syrian group in the exchange was confirmed by Sunni jihadist sources on social media.
The Telegram channel for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a recently-formed umbrella group that is dominated by the group formerly known as Al Nusrah Front, announced yesterday that the “first phase” of the prisoner swap with the “Iranian enemy” had been completed. Ebaa News Agency, the propaganda arm for HTS, reported that 15 “buses carrying 500 mujahideen from al-Zabadani, Serghaya, and Damascus’s eastern mountain” had “arrived with their families,” while “46 buses carrying the residents and militants of Kefraya and al-Foua went toward areas of regime control.” Ebaa added that the swap deal involves “more than 1500 prisoners” held by Bashar al Assad’s “criminal regime,” and “the introduction of food and medical aid in the besieged areas” near Damascus. Ebaa’s announcement in Arabic can be seen below.
Kefraya and al-Fouah are two predominately Shiite towns in the northern province of Idlib, which was overrun by an al Qaeda-led coalition in early 2015. The fighting in the two towns has long been linked to the situation in al-Zabadani, a town in southern Syria that is close to the border with Lebanon. The insurgency’s Sunni jihadists have used Kefraya and al-Foua as leverage in their conflict with the Assad regime and its Iranian-backed Shiite allies. Ahrar al-Sham, one of al Qaeda’s closest battlefield partners, has helped negotiate previous prisoner and civilian exchanges. Ahrar al-Sham has received funding from Qatar’s government, according to American and regional officials cited by the New York Times.
HTS’ Ebaa posted a series of photos and a video celebrating the arrival of Sunni civilians and jihadists in northern Syria after they were freed from al-Zabadani and other besieged areas in the south. Some of the photos can be seen below.
In a separate statement released via Telegram, Ebaa trumpeted the arrival of “four buses carrying 120 detainees” who “were released from the prisons of the [Assad] regime” under the terms of swap agreement with the “Iranian enemy.” Ebaa also claimed that more than “750 detainees from the provinces of Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib” would be released as part of the deal.
There are additional indications that the release of Qatar’s hostages was linked to the swap agreement in Syria.
Negotiations over the Qatari hostages reportedly took place both in Doha and in Beirut, the home of Lebanese Hezbollah. As part of those talks, Al-Monitor reported that Doha hosted negotiators for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as HTS, the aforementioned al Qaeda-led joint venture. One of the individuals hosted in Doha for the talks, according to several sources cited by Al-Monitor, was Hussam al-Shafii, who was described as HTS’ political chief and spokesperson for al Qaeda’s Syrian arm. Earlier this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the prisoner and civilian swap was negotiated under “Qatari supervision.”
However, Qatar’s diplomatic victory was marred by reports that a multi-million dollar ransom was paid to a US-designated terrorist group and al Qaeda’s joint venture in Syria, even though Qatar routinely denied such claims.
On Apr. 19, The Guardian reported that Qatari officials arrived in Baghdad with “large bags they refused to be searched.” The paper cited senior Iraqi officials who it said “believed the bags to be carrying millions of dollars in ransom money” for Kata’ib Hezbollah, Ahrar al-Sham, and HTS.
Then, the Associated Press reported yesterday that an individual involved in the talks said Qatar had paid “tens of millions of dollars to Shi’ite groups,” HTS, and Ahrar al-Sham. Similarly, the New York Times cited a senior Iraqi official who asserted that Qatar paid millions of dollars as part of the deal to Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militia that has claimed credit for killing US service members in Iraq.
Qatar has negotiated numerous hostage deals with al Qaeda and in many of those instances, Doha has been accused of paying multi-million dollar ransoms to the group. Western and Middle Eastern government officials have raised concerns about some of these unsavory deals in the past. According to the Wall Street Journal, Qatar has previously admitted Syria-based al Qaeda officials into its territory for official meetings. In addition, Qatar has yet to visibly pursue legal action against even a single UN-designated individual accused of funding al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
However, the new US administration has yet to indicate whether it will take a firm stand against alleged Qatari ransom payments, which have purportedly enriched Sunni jihadists and now Shi’ite terrorist groups that have taken American lives. Mattis’s arrival in Qatar within hours of the country’s emir meeting freed members of the royal family on the tarmac may increase the pressure on Washington to finally confront this thorny issue.
Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s Ebaa News Agency released these photos of men from al-Zabadani getting off buses in northern Syria: