Qatar: Godfather to prisoners exchange deals in Syria
Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish
Over recent years, the State of Qatar has emerged as a regional power in the Middle East in terms of foreign policy, economy, and charity works. Its influence was very clear in Syria, particularly after the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
One side of the Qatari influence in Syria was manifested by its mediation efforts, which played a significant role in solving many prisoners exchange deals in Syria, including the release deals of Lebanese hostages in exchange for Turkish civilian pilots, elements, and officers of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, the Maaloula nuns, several Lebanese soldiers, besides its pivotal role in the Four Towns Agreement.
Since the very beginning of the Syrian revolution, Qatar sided with the opposition forces against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It supported Syrian opposition through its media outlets, mainly the al-Jazeera channel, and funded them. This prompted a complete rupture in diplomatic relations between Qatar and the Syrian regime that would last till this day. The once close allies have turned into foes amid accusations from the regime that al-Doha was involved in financing what it called “terrorism.”
Qatar’s two main pillars, its al-Jazeera news center and wealth, played a vital role in reporting peaceful demonstrations in Syria, covering the battles between the regime and the former Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, as well as providing financial support for military factions and humanitarian aid to the displaced.
Qatar used its media and fortune as a tool to mediate Syrian and foreign prisoners’ swap deals. Qatari mediation was an essential factor that helped to resolve several sensitive issues within the Syrian crisis.
The country that covers a surface area of 11,521 square kilometers with a small population of about 300,000 persons, leaving expatriates out, and ranks third in the world’s natural gas reserves and 13th in oil reserves had aims that it sought to achieve through mediating prisoners exchange operations, especially those involving foreign hostages, by paying tens of millions to this end.
Future regional goals
Syrian-Canadian academic Dr. Faisal Abbas Mohammed, who has a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from Canada, told Enab Baladi that Qatar’s role in the Syrian political landscape is part of the overall Qatari strategy in the Arab region and with its neighboring countries (Iran and Turkey).
Qatar’s strategy is focused on building political influence where possible, or establishing alliances, and playing pressure cards to balance its position against Arab rivals—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates UAE.
Dr. Mohammed added that Qatar wants to prove itself to the western world as a regional power that can play an important role in solving critical crises, unlike other countries in the region.
Qatar succeeded in achieving this goal on many occasions, including the 2013 crisis of Lebanese hostages, of which 11 were Shiite, and nine were linked to Hizbullah, in addition to the crisis of captivated Syrian and Lebanese nuns in Maaloula, and the American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, according to Dr. Mohammed.
He added, the list of Qatari’s mediation is long and includes similar successful cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia besides Syria.
Head of the Information Unit at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nawar Shaban, said Qatar had proved itself a key player or mediator in future processes related to international policies in Syria.
Qatar served as a bridge linking military formations on the ground in Syria and other countries. It initiated security dialogues that some came to the public, and some did not. This allowed additional political weight to Qatar, which it invested in agreements and discussions about Syria’s future at some point in recent years.
Shaban noted that the mediation played by Qatar was not based on its preference of one faction or side in the Syrian conflict, but on a wish to export its image to the international world as the “godfather of reconciliations,” which Qatar managed to accomplish, making it “a very important regional player at a certain point in time.”
Dr. Mohammed said Qatar was keen on having as many “pressure cards” as possible to use against its rivals. It sought to impress its American and Western allies by using the hostages’ liberation card, which was overseen by the Qatari Foreign Minister at the time, Khalid al-Attiya.
Dr. Mohammed pointed out that Qatar as a political entity is threatened by immediate neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which were planning to invade Qatar in June 2017 to topple its ruling power and annex it to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but the US former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson stopped the move.
Qatar’s influence as a regional power was also hit hard by the 2013 Egyptian military coup, which toppled former Qatari-backed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and brought Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to presidency with the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
A cheap cost for Qatari rulers
At every occasion of Qatari mediation, voices rose about al-Doha paying millions of dollars to make hostages liberation deals, risking these sums to end up with various groups and military formations.
Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar saw an opportunity in Syria following the popular uprising against the tyrannical Assad regime and the political conflict period that followed the peaceful demonstrations. Their intervention in Syria aimed to expand their influence and gain key cards to influence the course of events for their own interests, according to Dr. Mohammed.
Despite the official denial, Qatar has established ties with some “jihadist” groups fighting the Syrian regime and its allies, particularly the al-Nusra Front, which became known later as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). These ties allowed Qatar to play a distinctive role in the negotiations for hostages release.
“To a small country like Qatar that has a low population and massive fortune, the amounts paid for hostage release deals do not count as a heavy price to Qatari rulers,” Dr. Mohammed said.
Dr. Mohammed added that the “appalling fiscal myopia of some Gulf States is far more serious than Qatari money spent on mediations.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE spend tens of billions on arms deals with the US. Hundreds of millions are spent by the region’s rulers to polish their image with the help of American and European public relations firms, who also bribe politicians to urge the US to provide more security and political support.
Qatar: nonstop meditation in Syria
Qatar did not make reservations about its role in many hostage exchange negotiations on Syrian soil, and the al-Jazeera channel reported the deals and mentioned that they took place under Qatari auspices.
With every Qatari mediation, news surface about millions of dollars paid by Qatar to certain parties to pull off deals. Nevertheless, Qatar does not declare the exact amounts paid, particularly after since it was accused in some deals of paying money to the al-Nusra Front and Iranian militias.
Iranian revolutionary guards’ release under Qatari mediation
On 2 May, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech before his supporters in Bushehr province in southern Iran that the former emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani had paid 57 million USD to release 57 elements of the IRGC, who were held prisoners by one of the FSA factions in 2012.
This hostage crisis started when the commander known as Abu Khaled al-Ghizlani and his elements captured 48 Iranians, mostly military personnel, in August 2012 in the al-Ghizlaniya area in the southeastern part of the Eastern Ghouta region.
Al-Ghizlani was part of the Ummahat al-Momineen faction in the southern sector of the Eastern Ghouta. He handed over the Iranian prisoners to Captain Abdul Nasser Shamir, a commander at the al-Rahman Legion and a former dissident from the regime forces, for being an internationally known name experienced in holding hostage release negotiations in opposition areas.
The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH) and the Qatari government mediated negotiations until all hostages were set free on 9 January 2012. In return, the Syrian regime released 2,130 detainees, including 76 women and four Turkish citizens.
To conclude the deal, the Qatari mediators were claimed to have paid large sums to the opposition faction, which the faction’s leader Shamir denied.
Swapping Turkish pilots for Lebanese pilgrims
In May 2012, one of the opposition factions, the Northern Storm Brigade, operating in Aleppo countryside, kept 11 Lebanese hostages on their way back from a visit to holy sites in Iran.
The faction liberated two of the captives and demanded the release of female detainees from Syrian regime prisons in exchange for the remaining nine hostages.
The prisoners swapping deal ended with a Qatari mediation in October 2013. One hundred female detainees were saved from the regime’s prisons, along with two Turkish pilots working for the Turkish Airlines company who were kidnapped in August 2013. In return, the faction released the nine Lebanese detainees, according to the al-Jazeera channel.
American journalist set free by al-Nusra Front after Qatari mediation
American journalist Peter Theo Curtis returned to the United States in August 2014 after being captivated by the al-Nusra Front (“HTS” currently after al-Nusra merged with other factions) for 22 months.
According to al-Jazeera, the American journalist was handed over to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in the Golan Heights, and then he was transferred to the United States.
The nuns of Maaloula
On 10 March 2014 and near the Syrian-Lebanese borders, 13 nuns held by the al-Nusra Front were liberated from captivity at the Mar Takla convent in Maaloula, northern Damascus. The nuns were kidnapped during an operation by the FSA and al-Nusra Front in the area in December 2013.
At the time, al-Nusra said that it did not captivate the nuns but moved them from the convent to keep them safe from the regime’s bombardment on the convent.
The nuns’ release was part of a swap deal in which the regime set free 152 female detainees from its prisons.
The exchange deal of Lebanese soldiers
After Qatari mediation, al-Nusra Front operating on the Western Qalamoun Mountains near the Lebanese borders released 16 Lebanese soldiers it captivated for 16 months between August 2014 and December 2015 following negotiations with the Lebanese government.
The deal stipulated the handing over of 13 detainees to the al-Nusra Front, including five women, in exchange for the release of 16 Lebanese soldiers, in addition to other terms related to humanitarian matters that the Lebanese government did not implement.
Four months before the Lebanese soldiers’ exchange deal, a prisoner swap agreement was carried out between the opposition and Lebanese General Security, which provided for the opposition release of sisters Nibal and Houriya Abdin, in return for the release of a Syrian woman and her child, also under Qatari mediation.
The Four Towns Agreement
The most prominent Qatari mediation was the Four Towns Agreement between the opposition on the one hand and Iran and the regime on the other.
The agreement provided for the evacuation of former opposition fighters and civilians refusing to stay under the regime’s control from Madaya and al-Zabadani in the western countryside of Damascus and the Yarmouk camp to northern Syria. in return, the regime agreed to allow the exit of all residents of Kafriya and al-Fu’ah in two batches, along with the release of 1,500 detainees held by the regime.
The agreement also provided for the release of 37 fighters imprisoned by Iranian militias in the area of Sayyidah Zaynab in Damascus, besides four prisoners in the town of al-Fu’ah.
The agreement eventually led to the evacuation of Kafriya and al-Fu’ah residents and fighters on 17 August 2018.
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