Will Bishops Be Included in Deal

Jean Aziz for Al-Monitor  Lebanon Pulse – 15/10/13

A Lebanese minister confirmed to Al-Monitor that he has completely freed up his schedule for  the next few days, and will keep his mobile phone at his side until the end of  the Eid al-Adha holiday, which lasts from Oct. 15-17. He said he is waiting for  a call from a Lebanese security official, who will tell him to take a plane to  somewhere in Syria or Turkey to meet the Lebanese citizens who were kidnapped in  Azaz and escort them back to Lebanon. Are his calculations true? What about the  two bishops who were kidnapped [in Syria] as well? All indicators in Beirut  point to the fact that the mediation carried out by the general director of  Lebanese General Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, to free the kidnapped citizens has succeeded, or is nearing success. Ibrahim had launched a highly professional negotiation process for this  purpose. These negotiations involved multiple parties and trips to a variety of  capitals. He undertook a series of shuttle visits between Doha, Ankara, Damascus  and even Berlin — amid complete secrecy regarding the details of his movements — which appears to have resulted in a fundamental  breakthrough in the case of the kidnapped Lebanese citizens.

Informed sources in Beirut confirmed to Al-Monitor that  the settlement of this issue — which has been ongoing for about 17 months — was  based on the principle of a comprehensive deal. It was carried out according to  a program that involved the following steps: First, releasing about 107 members  of the Syrian opposition held in Syrian prisons. Second, the armed Syrian  opposition will release the nine Lebanese citizens who were kidnapped in Azaz,  along the Turkish-Syrian border, on March 22, 2012. Third, when the detained  Lebanese arrive in Beirut, the two Turkish pilots who were kidnapped on Aug. 9,  2013, will be released. According to the sources, the unknown assailants who  kidnapped the pilots announced their readiness to release them immediately after  the Lebanese citizens are freed.

While all of the concerned parties are expecting the deal to be completed  before the Eid al-Adha holiday — which carries much humanitarian significance,  since it would allow the kidnapped Muslims to spend the holiday with their  families at home — some in Beirut are questioning what allowed the deal to be carried out now,  after several previous attempts failed.

Sources from the Lebanese government explained their reading of the issue  to Al-Monitor. They said that the settlement is possible now as a  result of several variables that were not present at previous stages. The first  variable is the climate of a detente regarding the Syrian issue, following the  “chemical weapons settlement” there, as well as the subsequent detente between  Washington and Tehran. Likewise, there is talk of a comprehensive theoretical  framework for a settlement between the West on one hand and Syria and Iran on  the other. The second variable is represented by the difficult internal situation facing Turkish authorities, on multiple levels — politically,  economically and even in terms of security. This is especially true given that  the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is facing the negative  consequences of this difficult situation, is preparing for elections in several  months. The third variable involves Qatar’s changing role in the Syrian war,  after Saudi Arabia took sole control of managing the Syrian opposition following  the resignation of Qatar’s former emir and the Qatari foreign minister on June  25. Saudi Arabia’s monopolization of this role, the traditional and historical  sensitivities between Riyadh and Doha, and the previously referenced climate of  detente seem to have led to Qatar becoming a contributing factor in the Syrian  issue, and a player that can help solve the issue of the kidnapped Lebanese.  There have been several indications in this regard. These include a Qatari message which was given to President Bashar  al-Assad by a Palestinian official, Abbas Zaki, a few days ago [on Oct.  7]. This comes amid rumors that Qatar will cover all “financial costs”  needed to carry out the deal to release the kidnapped Lebanese  citizens.

However, the question remains: If these expectations are true, and the nine  Lebanese citizens are released, what about the two Syrian bishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, who  have been held by Syrian opposition militants since April 23? Official Lebanese  sources told Al-Monitor that Maj. Gen. Ibrahim has been working from  the beginning on including the issue of the bishops in the deal involving the  nine kidnapped Lebanese citizens. He has been negotiating with all involved  parities on this basis. The same sources revealed that some parties to the  negotiations initially tried to avoid this, citing that the kidnapped bishops  are Syrian and not Lebanese.. Ibrahim, however, rejected this approach.

Seeking to make his appeal on humanitarian grounds, and beyond national or  sectarian loyalties, he instead claimed that the two bishops must be considered  Lebanese citizens, given that they belong to two churches (the Syrian Orthodox  and Greek Orthodox Churches) which have headquarters in Lebanon as well in  Syria. Then, according to the same sources, those involved in negotiations for  the kidnapped Lebanese tried to play on sectarian issues. They said that since  the bishops are Christians, why should their fate be included in negotiations on  the kidnapped Lebanese Shiites? Why doesn’t a Christian party negotiate their  release? But Ibrahim remained insistent, rejecting any hints of this  kind. According to the sources, he stressed that the bishops must be  considered a priority in any settlement. Thus, those involved in negotiations  regarding the Lebanese citizens were joyous when information emerged confirming  that the two bishops are still alive. Al-Monitor reported on this issue  in a Sept. 26 article.

Does this mean that the deal to free the kidnapped Lebanese will be  comprehensive? Lebanese government circles seemed hesitant to confirm this. Even  if they were to confirm that the negotiations were comprehensive, there would  remain questions about the timeline for a deal. In other words, would the  bishops be freed at the same time as the Azaz detainees? After them? Or even  before them? Yet Ibrahim’s visit to the Maronite patriarch a few days  ago — the first such visit amid negotiations to complete the deal — are a  positive indicator in this direction. Especially in light of the satisfaction  that visit produced within the church community in Lebanon.

Will it all be completed as everyone hopes? The Lebanese minister involved  in the issue remains silent. But at the same time, he is constantly clutching  his mobile phone, waiting for good news and the date of the journey of  freedom.

Jean Aziz is a contributing writer  for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at  the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the host of a  weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station. He also teaches  communications at the American University of Technology and the Université  Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon.