On December 2, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda known as Jabhat Al Nusra freed 16 Lebanese soldiers and policemen in exchange for the release of 29 Islamists and their children, who were all imprisoned in Lebanon and Syria. Broadcast live on Lebanese and Qatari satellite television, the prisoner swap was a spectacle. More than that, its symbolism, strategic significance, and regional ramifications were immediately the topic of vigorous debate.
It didn’t take long for the Lebanese to critique the transaction. As the freed hostages were hugging their parents in Beirut upon their return, Lebanese commentators were already bemoaning the “tragedy that had just transpired.” Politicians from all walks of life couldn’t believe that their government had just completed a “deal with the devil.” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, for example, called the episode a “sovereignty scandal,” despite the fact that Hezbollah, with which Berri is allied, had an active role in securing the deal.
A closer look at who got what explains the general mood of anger and disillusionment among most Lebanese.
Starting with the positives: First, by getting back its men alive, Beirut communicated to the country’s military that, no matter how long or how much it takes, it will not abandon Lebanese soldiers when they are abducted. Whether Lebanese officers will find comfort in their state’s performance is unclear, though, since several of their comrades were slaughtered by the same terrorists not too long ago. But this event’s happier ending might boost morale and maintain the unity of an army that is overstretched and under equipped and that is fighting terrorism day and night across the country, particularly along its northern borders with Syria.
Second, even though the events are still murky, the Lebanese authorities have claimed that they refused to release any Islamist extremists from prison who have blood on their hands or
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