What happened: On 1 December, the Syrian Al-Qa’ida affiliate Nusra Front (NF) released 16 members of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and General Security held for more than a year in a prisoner-swap arranged by Qatar. In turn, the Lebanese government agreed to free 25 prisoners, including 17 women, one of whom is Saja al-Dulaimi, the former wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the chief of the General Security Directorate who oversaw the swap, said, ‘We accomplished the entire agreement with Nusra [Front]. We received our heroic soldiers and we are on our way back to Beirut.’
Why it matters: This was a rare moment of unity in a country that has been without a president since 2014, when Michel Suleiman vacated the post after the end of his term. Repeated attempts to choose a new president – a process that requires a two-third parliamentary majority – have failed, leaving a political vacuum, made worse by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which has led to polarisation and sectarian violence.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, north Lebanon has emerged as a recruiting pool and an effective staging area for Lebanese jihadists crossing into Syria to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed regime. Later, in early 2013, NF and ISIL moved into the area in response to the increased support provided to al-Assad by Tehran’s proxy, the Lebanese Shi’a militia Hezbollah; the border town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley became a safe haven, allowing the two organisations to recruit marginalised Lebanese Sunnis and Syrian refugees to launch attacks on Hezbollah’s strongholds, as well as positions of the LAF, whose operations against them they saw as doing the Shi’a militia’s bidding. (The LAF prisoners were captured in Arsal in August 2014.) The most recent attack took place on 12 November, when a double suicide bombing claimed by ISIL in Beirut’s predominantly Shi’a district of Bourj al-Barajneh killed 43 people and wounded more than 200.
In this context, the swap was an unexpected compromise. The government had previously refused to deal with the terrorists, who had executed four of the hostages to exert leverage; the terrorist groups, meanwhile, had initially demanded Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria, as well as the release of Sunni Islamist prisoners, as their price for the soldiers’ release. But the government eventually agreed to negotiate with terrorists, while the terrorists settled for the Sunni prisoners alone. The deal was agreed upon against a backdrop of increasing vigilantism by Lebanese citizens, who – after the government’s many failed attempts to resolve the kidnap crisis – took to blocking main roads, encircling the border town of Arsal, which is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and increasing retaliatory attacks against them. The release of the servicemen (following the discreet mediation of the veteran Druze politician Walid Jumblatt) is therefore likely to provide the Lebanese government much-needed political capital in the face of the deadlock that has paralysed state institutions in the country – the latest of which is the authorities’ failure to resolve the issue of garbage collection, with rubbish clogging the streets of Beirut prompting a popular ‘You Stink’ campaign. Yet it is also worth noting that the government’s success has come at a price: one of the conditions put forth by Qatar (a key ally of al-Assad’s opponents) was to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid to refugees in Arsal, which had been blocked for several months by authorities deeming the area as infiltrated by terrorists.
Implications: The government’s decision to reach what proved to be a tortuous deal will boost its popularity amongst disenchanted Lebanese, who still largely consider the military the country’s last remaining neutral institution. But the essential role played by Qatar will certainly upset Hezbollah and its Syrian ally, who regularly accuse Doha of supporting terrorist groups. Many will also see the deal as a symbolic victory for NF, whose members in Arsal were openly waving Al-Qa’ida flags as the exchange was taking place. The agreement could also mean that security personnel are now a viable target for kidnapping, with government concessions as ransom guaranteed. Indeed, nine Lebanese servicemen are still being held by ISIL – which has so far refused to negotiate their release. Any effort to reach a similar deal with ISIL is likely to prove much harder, as the government’s bargaining position has weakened even before the negotiations have begun.
Post by HELP Intelligence Experts - Aegis Advisory
Contact - Rashad al-Kattan +44(0)20 7222 1020 firstname.lastname@example.org
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