Breaking through the rhetoric: The rise of negotiation among enemies in Syria

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Back in August 2014, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State group (IS) forces attacked the Lebanese town of Arsal. The fighting concluded with the capture of 30 Lebanese policemen and soldiers. Immediately after the battle, the Nusra Front and IS executed two soldiers each. One died from wounds sustained from fighting in Arsal, while 16 soldiers remained in the custody of the Nusra Front, and nine remained imprisoned by IS.

Sixteen months later, an exchange of captives took place between Lebanon and the Nusra Front. The deal was brokered by Qatar, who has over the last decade been playing somewhat controversial, but often crucial roles in conflict mediation throughout the region.

At the time, December 1, 2015, the event attracted substantial public attention, but it quickly faded into the background of the news cycle. At first glance, the return of 16 Lebanese policemen and soldiers — held by the Nusra Front since August 2014 — seemed like a routine swap between belligerents as a result of successful local level negotiations — most of which took place recently as a result of the stalemate felt by all sides on the ground. Yet, this exchange differs because it took place between a non-state actor — in this case, an internationally-agreed-upon terrorist organization — and a neighboring state, Lebanon; with the blessing of the Syrian and Saudi governments.

In Lebanon, the prisoner exchange provided the government with an opportunity to instill a sense of unity in its fragmented populace. Upon the release of the Lebanese captives by the Nusra Front, people in Beirut representing different political allegiances cheered the news of their release. Meanwhile in Doha, the government quickly claimed credit for having facilitated talks and provided aid, but strongly denied paying any money as part of the deal.

Although this is not the first time Qatar has succeeded in brokering such a deal involving foreign nationals — it did so before with Lebanese Shiite pilgrims — the fact that it involved the exchange of soldiers is significant.

An earlier attempt to release the Jordanian pilot failed despite the Jordanian Government’s willingness to submit to the demands of IS. In fact, the exchange contrasts with Nusra Front’s own track record of handling prisoners of war. Therefore, this case deserves deeper analysis as it highlights a number of anomalies that may have implications for how we view the conflict in Syria and the ways in which it may end. 

First, the exchange would not have been successful without the involvement of many parties that are “publicly” at war with each other. Major General Abbas Ibrahim, chief of the Lebanese Security Service, emphasized that the deal was assisted by the direct involvement of Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and even Sa’ad Hariri. While this raises hope that talking peace among foes is not impossible when it comes to the war in Syria; at the same time it underlines that a clear political will is needed to do so. In this case, the exchange clearly served Hezbollah’s interests. The organization has been blamed for dragging Lebanon into the Syria war and has found it increasingly difficult to justify why Lebanese soldiers — mostly non-Shiite — were placed in harm’s way as a result of its unilateral decisions in Syria.

Second, the exchange represents an attempt by the Nusra Front to position itself as a party willing to negotiate in order to achieve both a military and political objective. The group also demonstrated a capacity to protect captured soldiers and later leverage them as bargaining tools, instead of merely executing them. By doing so, it attempts to distance itself from IS and its atrocious actions; however, it achieved this end without totally alienating IS by insisting on including Saja al-Dulaimi — the former wife of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, arrested by the Lebanese security forces in November 2014 — in the exchange. Given recent developments on the ground, this can be seen as an attempt by the Nusra Front to reiterate its assertion that unlike its affiliate, al-Qaeda, its project is a national one. The Nusra Front has no ambition to be seen as operating across borders, particularly following its enrollment alongside other more moderate groups in their fight against Assad.

Third, most of the prisoners released by the Lebanese in exchange for their security personnel were captured following the Arsal attack and remained in custody for a long time without being formally and publicly charged with specific criminal acts. This is despite the fact that al-Dulaimi’s history of serving as a transporter of moneyfor militant organizations was documented by the Washington Post, as she was imprisoned by the Syrian government until 2014. Similarly, Joumana Hmayed, another prisoner of the Lebanese, was caught around the same time as al-Dulaimi for driving a car with about 100 kilograms of explosives. These actions, if true, clearly show intent on the part of the suspects to aid or carry out terrorist acts. For the Lebanese government to release these individuals, the political goodwill generated in return was calculated to be higher in value.

Fourth, as a result of mediating this prisoner exchange, the Qatari government has unwittingly placed itself, yet again, in a controversial position. The Qataris’ involvement, once more, demonstrated their ability to access — directly or indirectly — some of the extremist groups such as the Nusra Front, and more so their willingness to negotiate with such organizations.

This trend continued despite their continuous denial of any links to terrorist organizations in response to growing international scrutiny over their ties to militant Islamists fighting in Syria and elsewhere.

Of course, last year, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, expressed his belief that not all groups possessing an Islamist background are terrorists, and as such, Qatar will continue to engage these groups in dialogue in order to achieve a favorable outcome for both parties. The Qatari position to keep the door open remains advantageous given the current political and security flux across the region. However, for Qatari officials, publicly revealing their connections to extreme Islamist organizations, as they displayed by communicating directly with the Nusra Front, will prove undoubtedly damaging in the long run.

Qatar needs to reflect on this issue very carefully as it shifted its mediation efforts from multi-party, complex issues of peace-making in the region to narrow and single issue initiatives designed to achieve immediate results. Despite the Emir’s good will in wanting to ensure that communication lines persist in Syria, and undoubtedly the basic humanitarian gesture involved in the exchange on all sides, Qatar would better itself by disassociating the government from such talks. They ought to take lead from the experiences of other nations, who over the years have learned that mediation is often a thankless task.

As a mediator — to some extent this applies also to the parties of conflict — you need to preserve the option of “deniability,” i.e. your ability as a government to deny any role in the process, in case things go wrong. In a previous analysis paper, the author recommended that Qatar should encourage the establishment of a national or a regional, non-governmental entity that can develop the ability to undertake discreet interventions without having public link to the state. This would allow the Qatari government to distance itself from Islamist groups, but provide them with the reputation they seek as a broker of peace in the region. It will also protect Qatari interests, both at home and abroad.

In recent years, and due to their nascent role in mediating conflicts, Qatar has effectively placed a “price tag” on Qatari citizens traveling abroad. This threat is highlighted by the kidnapping of a group of Qatari citizens on a hunting vacation at the Iraqi-Saudi border–allegedly by a Shiite militia. Militant groups that count ransom payments as a source of income now view Qataris, especially members of the royal family, as high value targets. The Qatari government has unfortunately cemented this trend by attempting to publicly take credit for this and other mediation attempts, while failing to effectively counter the impression that money has exchanged hands as part of any deals.

In summary, the exchange that took place between Lebanon and the Nusra Front offers more than the obvious humanitarian gesture towards the prisoners and their families. It demonstrates that despite the harsh rhetoric regarding violent military solutions to the war in Syria, a space to negotiate with the enemy always exists. The success of this deal might spur regional and international parties to invest more in diplomatic avenues, but for that to happen, Qatar and any other potential third party should approach with extreme caution its current involvement in attempts to resolve immediate issues among foes.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.