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 active terrorism cases against them. It is hard to verify that without access to sensitive information, though.
Third, and perhaps most important, the deal was a product, or a harbinger, of political accommodation between rival Lebanese political factions, specifically between the Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement. Indeed, the swap would have been impossible had Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri not cooperated. For instance, Hariri flew to Doha to persuade the Qataris, who acted as brokers throughout this 16-month hostage crisis, that Abbas Ibrahim, chief Lebanese negotiator and head of the country’s General Security Directorate, is someone worth trusting, despite his strong support for Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Nasrallah convinced his ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to release three women and nine children imprisoned in Syria that were on Jabhat Al Nusra’s demand list (one of those women is Khalidiyya Hussain Zeiniya, the sister of Abu Malek Al Talli, the group’s commander in the Lebanese Qalamoun area). This moment of accord between Nasrallah and Hariri could facilitate the election of a new Lebanese head of state after a year and a half of political vacuum.
Yet this outcome came with heavy costs. The sight of terrorists waving black al Qaeda flags and operating in full military uniform with impunity on Lebanese soil and in broad daylight was painful and humiliating for the Lebanese people. More practically, by agreeing to the swap, the Lebanese state projected weakness, or at the very least, sent the message that it is not opposed to doing business with terrorists. That, in turn, could invite more kidnappings and longer lists of demands. The Islamic State (ISIS) holds nine other Lebanese soldiers and police members hostage; one wonders what Beirut would give up to release them. ISIS, a larger and more powerful movement than Jabhat Al Nusra, might be able to extract more from the Lebanese state should it decide to negotiate. But beyond the popular astonishment and the fears over the price tag of potential future terrorist deals, the Lebanese state’s inability to expel Jabhat Al Nusra from Lebanese territory and end its control of the northern town of Arsal is the clearest evidence of Lebanon’s failure to win in this exchange what mattered most: the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
For its part, in addition to the safe haven of Arsal, Jabhat al Nusra, might have also benefited from creating an image of a terrorist group that is capable of mercy and pragmatism in ways that ISIS is not. That reputation could help it gain a political future in Syria.
To be sure, there were some costs and compromises for the group too, including the failure to release hundreds of other high-profile extremists from the Lebanese prison of Roumieh or to force Hezbollah to withdraw its men from Syrian territory. But Jabhat Al Nusra knew that the latter demand was unrealistic and the formal loss was tolerable, compared to what it was able to gain.
For a relatively small prisoner swap, this deal’s complexity was remarkable, as evidenced by the number of local, regional, and internationals players that were involved. Key to the success of the deal was Qatar. In a previous article in Foreign Affairs called “The Dishonest Broker,” I wrote about Qatar’s desire to cement its role as a go-to mediator in the region. Its active involvement in this hostage crisis, which Doha made sure to air live on its satellite channel Al Jazeera for all the world to see, is the latest example of the small country’s commitment to playing an oversized mediation role, despite serious concerns by its neighbors about its real intentions. Yet regional questions about Qatar’s good offices notwithstanding, the truth is that Western countries, including the United States, find value in Doha’s access to some of the Middle East’s bad actors. After all, if bombing terrorists and adversaries fails, somebody has to facilitate talks.
The level of pragmatism that Doha displayed throughout the negotiations was notable. Qatar and Hezbollah have a visceral and strategic disagreement over Syria—the latter doing everything in its power to ensure Assad’s survival and the former committing to his toppling—but it didn’t stop Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani from cooperating with Nasrallah to secure the release of the Lebanese hostages. Specifically, following instructions from Tamim, the Qatari intelligence services convinced Jabhat Al Nusra leaders to refrain from upping their demands in the final minutes of the negotiations and go for the deal.
But realpolitik wasn’t limited to Qatar and Hezbollah. Turkey, which provided logistical assistance by hosting talks on multiple occasions between lead Lebanese negotiator and leaders of Jabhat Al Nusra under Qatari mediation, agreed to receive some of the freed prisoners of the terrorist group. Russia and the Syrian government, who have adversarial relations with Ankara, agreed to a ceasefire between Hezbollah and Jabhat Al Nusra along the northern borders. Iran implicitly blessed the deal through Ali Akbar Velayati, a top advisor to the Supreme Leader who recently visited Beirut. And although Saudi Arabia did not have a direct involvement in the swap, its controversial and surprising approval of the nomination of Suleiman Franjieh as Lebanon’s new president, despite his close personal friendship with Assad (whom Riyadh is committed to deposing) and undeniable support for Hezbollah (which is suspected of killing Rafik Hariri, Saudi Arabia's main man in Lebanon), contributed to the overall de-escalation of tensions.
Prisoner swaps typically require compromises by both sides. But in this particular deal, it must be said, Jabhat Al Nusra emerged as a winner. What’s tragic is that Lebanon is not in a position to correct wrongs and retake what was lost. The Lebanese army is incapable of dislodging all terrorists from the north and Hezbollah, despite its tactical successes against Sunni extremists, is busy securing its own areas in the southern suburbs of Beirut and fighting its enemies on Syrian territory. Only the end of the Syrian conflict can effectively neutralize the Sunni militant threat to Lebanon and prevent another costly swap. That sworn adversaries momentarily set aside their differences to achieve this latest deal offers hope, but it will take a much bigger dose of pragmatism and compromise to reach a solution to the civil war in Syria.