Gregorios III, Melkite Catholic greek Patriarch of Antioch, said the nuns’ release was “a sign of hope in this time of crisis.”
The 13 nuns and 3 lay women who were held captive for more than 3 months by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria were freed on Monday evening (10/03/2014). The nuns made an ardours journey which seen them transferred from the rebel-held town of Yabrud, Syria out into Lebanon to the town of Arsel, itself a stronghold of radical islamists, and then back into Syria via the official crossing. The Cathedral church of the Cross in Damascus was packed to capacity as people gathered to give the nuns an emotional welcome. A service of thanksgiving was held for their freedom.
The release of the nuns took place at this time essentially because their value as captives was diminishing by the day. Government forces were daily coming closer to recapturing the area in which the nuns were being held and thus the al-Qaeda group holding the nuns came to an agreement lessening the long list of conditions and demands they had originally set. Lebanese secular daily newspaper al Akhbar reported the following. “The release of the kidnapped nuns from Maaloula is yet another development linked to the ongoing battle in the Qalamoun region in Syria. Over the span of the three months that the nuns were held hostage, their captors constantly made more demands, including the release of all Islamist detainees in Syria and Lebanon. The kidnappers only slowly began to abandon some of their demands as the soldiers of the Syrian army and Hezbollah came closer to the city of Yabrud.
A knowledgeable source of the behind the scenes details of the negotiations told Al-Akhbar that "the kidnappers became certain that the Syrian army and Hezbollah would enter Yabrud soon, meaning the nuns were no longer a high value bargaining chip.” As the Syrian army and Hezbollah continued to advance in Qalamoun, they decided to strike a deal for the nuns’ release.”
While the news of the nuns release was met throughout the region with general rejoicing for some it was a time of mixed emotions particularly in Syria. In
order to affect the release of the nuns the Syrian government were forced to release approximately 150 prisoners many members of Jabhat al Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliated group which has engaged in the most heinous acts of terror against the Syrian people leaving tens of thousands dead in their
wake. The negotiated release also provided a pretext for NATO regional ally, Qatar to further finance acts of terror in Syria under the pretence of calling it ransom money. The Qataris are said
to have paid $16 million to the al-Qaeda group as part of the conditions for the release of the nuns. Over the last 3 years Qatar alongside Saudi Arabia has been a principle funder of the
violence in Syria.
Publishing the full story behind the nuns' release, Assafir newspaper said that in the wake of the kidnapping, two tracks of negotiation started on the basis that the nuns were not hostages but guests who were to be freed easily, just like the Syrian opposition figures used to echo in order to cover up the kidnapping politically.
"Before Qatar joined negotiations in the first weeks of the kidnapping, and during the second assault on Maaloula on December 2, 2013, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti (deputy of Abu Malik al-Tali, Al-Nusra Front emir in Qalamoun) restored the kidnapped group from the first kidnapper and the previous smuggler between Lebanon and Syria, Methqal Hamama who is one of the leaders in the so-called Sarkha Brigades," Assafir narrated.
"In the beginning, the kidnappers called the United Nations office in Damascus. Yet, following a Skype-call between the ambassador Mokhtar Lamani, head of UN bureau, and al-Kuwaiti, Lamani refused to move to Yabroud and to negotiate with al-Nusra Front directly as the UN urged him not to communicate directly with the black-listed front," it said.
Another track of negotiation kicked off in parallel with the first, when the Yabroudi businessman, George Hassoani, played a prominent role. He wasn't a real mediator, but as a figure close to the Syrian government, he used to transfer the exchanged offers in coordination with the Lebanese Major-General Abbas Ibrahim.
Sometimes, and in order to gain time, Hassoani used to restore things to their proper framework when dealing with the kidnappers and replying to the permanent negotiator, Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, who did not take off his explosives belt while talking to Hassoani via Skype.
During negotiations, the kidnappers and the hostages moved to a residence
home of Hassoani in Yabroud, which Al-Nusra Front had confiscated during his absence. The businessman paid the costs of the kidnappers throughout
their stay in his three-floor home in order to improve the nuns' conditions and facilitate a means to communicate with them (the kidnapped nuns appeared twice within three months in televised
The kidnappers repeatedly echoed that they were not looking for a ransom, but for a swap deal to release the detained women in the Syrian prisons. At the beginning, they presented hundreds of names, but decreased the number to 138 arrested women with a condition that the Syrian government should set free the Iraqi Saja Hamid al-Dulaimi, wife of one of al-Qaeda Iraqi leaders, along with her three children.
Syrian government refused the condition since Dulaimi doesn't hold
the Syrian nationality, and stressed that the government does not have any kind of information about 66 names of the 138 submitted, in addition to that 10 of them had been freed
Demanding the release of Dulaimi convinced those who were following negotiations that Kuwaiti was only a representative, and that true negotiators were somewhere else, because Kuwaiti was not able to answer the offers at the moment they were made.
Later, it was unfolded that he was nothing more than an intermediary in the negotiation process, which was controlled by other parties in al-Nusra Front and remotely directed by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, al-Nusra emir in the Levant.
The Syrian track in the negotiations stalled earlier this year,
and the Qatari channel was activated in coordination with General Ibrahim. During the last month, Qatari envoys visited the area around the Arsal mountains in North Lebanon, and began to speak
directly to the kidnappers, but without achieving the slightest progress. The kidnappers provided Ibrahim with a list of the detained Syrian women that included no less than a thousand names, but the
Syrian authorities neither agreed to negotiate it nor to consider it serious.
It was striking that the list included about 150 names of the "Islamists" detained in Roumieh prison in Lebanon, most of who are of non-Lebanese nationalities. Ibrahim's position was firm in refusing the release of any of Roumieh prisoners.
A Syrian official said that negotiations have been revived a few days ago, following important ground developments in Yabroud amid fierce battles in Qalamoun and the dispersion of militant groups which include ten thousand fighters on all fronts, and after the first kidnapper, Mithqal Hamama was killed in one of the Syrian army ambushes in the region.
A week ago, the kidnappers decided to leave the house of George Hassoani in Yabroud as the army was approaching it, along with the fall of strategic hills around Rima Farms on the outskirt of Yabroud. At this point, the detained nuns were distributed to a number of sites in Yabroud.
Here, the nuns' file appeared strongly to be bartered for what is beyond the ransom. Two days earlier, Abu Yazan, commander of the so-called 'Ghorabaa Brigade' in Qalamoun, called again a mediator in the Qatari channel and asked him to accelerate the completion of the deal, on condition they get 16 million dollars and the release of all the names mentioned in the list, adding again Saja al-Dulaimi, her three Iraqi children and her husband.
Abu Yazn also opened the security and military files, demanding a cease-fire around Yabroud and a halt of shelling against it. He also called for securing safe corridors for 1500 gunmen from Yabroud to Rankous and Arsal, but this condition was been flatly refused.
According to a Syrian source, the Qataris paid the ransom, and that the Syrian authorities had agreed to release detainees, but the security and military files have been entirely ruled out of any negotiations, always according to the Lebanese daily Assafir.
A video circulated by the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists shows the nuns at the time of their transfer and release in which they praise and thank the rebels.
Their comments on this video have been cited by some western media even by Catholic media outlets like AsiaNews.it all of whom seem oblivious to the fact that these women are under serious duress at the time. A similar situation arose back in September of 2013 when their convent was first attacked by the Jabhat al Nusra. Rebels filmed the nuns saying they were all well and unharmed etc. However it transpired afterwards that the nuns had been threatened by the rebels. To gain entrance to the convent, the rebels told the nuns if they did not open the door they would put a bomb under the door. The nuns had no choice but to admit them and appear on their video. In December the rebels did detonate a bomb at the convent door and then entered and kidnapped the nuns.
Above: a member of Jabhat al Nusra in the Qalamoun region, the area in which the nuns were held, can be seen here undertaking the ritualised slaughter of a man by cutting his throat with a knife. The image was posted on an al-Qaeda related Twitter account less than 4 weeks ago.
A Coalition of Christians and Muslims, made up of Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, and Syrians - American citizens in Los Angeles demonstrated this weekend in front of the Turkish Consulate under the title "Stop your aggression against the Syrian people". Turkey, a NATO member state, has with other NATO states and alongside Qatar and Saudi Arabia been a major contributor to the violence that has beset Syria for the last 3 years.