Nadine Elali

Hezbollah negotiates with “terrorists”

After objecting to similar negotiations over the fate of LAF soldiers, Hezbollah strikes a deal with its enemy in Syria

Hezbollah member Emad Ayyad celebrates with friends and family in Beirut on November 25, 2014, after being released by Syrian rebels during a prisoner swap. (AFP Photo/STR)

For the first time since the beginning of its operations in Syria, Hezbollah has agreed to an exchange deal with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The unprecedented step raises questions regarding Hezbollah’s firm position against government initiatives to negotiate the release of the kidnapped Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldiers.


Hezbollah’s media relations office released a brief statement yesterday announcing the successful liberation of Imad Ayyad, following “negotiations that lasted for a number of weeks with the kidnappers… in exchange for the release of two rebel fighters who in turn were detained by Hezbollah.”


The statement made no mention of who the kidnapping party was, nor did it reveal the identities of the two rebel fighters. However, sources close to SKY News, the Arabic news and current affairs channel, said that the two rebels were members of the FSA, in charge of carrying out covert operations against Hezbollah in the Qalamoun region. Ayyad, according to the report, was first captured in early October during clashes in Asal al-Ward, a Syrian village near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah then reportedly executed a security operation during which it detained two rebel officers. Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar confirmed the news and identified the men as FSA officers Merhi Merhi and Murhaf Abdel Gheni al-Rayes.


In an interview with Alsharq al-Awasat, Lebanese sources who oversaw the exchange stated that Hezbollah was not subjected to incapacitating terms and that Hezbollah still has more detainees belonging to Syrian armed opposition factions in its custody.


“This is the first time that Hezbollah has revealed that it has Free Syrian Army detainees in its custody,” Ali al-Amine told NOW. Amine, a Lebanese analyst and commentator said this was a new factor in the Syrian crisis and its ramifications on Lebanon. “Does Hezbollah have the right to hold these detainees? What position does Hezbollah put the state in, in such a case?”


“What if Hezbollah has Nusra or ISIS militant captives, too? What effects would that have on the negotiations concerning the release of the Lebanese kidnapped soldiers?”  


The swap between Hezbollah and the FSA comes amidst continued negotiations between Lebanon and the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra over Lebanese soldiers kidnapped in August during the fighting in Arsal. Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Party have repeatedly rejected any idea of an exchange under the pretext that Syrian militants are responsible for the killing of innocent Lebanese soldiers and are therefore an illegitimate party with which to negotiate.  


“On one hand, Hezbollah impedes negotiations that involves such swaps,” said Amine. “On the other, it carries out swaps of its own with no clear liaising with Lebanese authorities. Hezbollah was the first [party] to reject the swap — when it’s not a Hezbollah affair — and then the first to accept it when it is.”


Qassim Qassir, a journalist of close ties to Hezbollah, says the matter of negotiating with an enemy is not a new one for the party. Hassan Nasrallah, he says, after originally taking a position against the idea of negotiating with “terrorists,” went ahead and announced that negotiations could succeed if done in secret and if they entailed certain conditions.


“In this case,” Qassir told NOW, “Hezbollah had strong cards to negotiate with — just as the militant group had a detainee belonging to Hezbollah, Hezbollah, too, had detainees belonging to the FSA. The same should be applied in the government’s case of kidnapped soldiers.”


Sources told Al-Hayat newspaper that the swap is expected to facilitate a similar deal between the Lebanese government and jihadist groups in that it could serve as a precedent to the kidnapping party that a swap is executable.


“On this front, it might encourage the negotiators to be more lenient,” Amine said, “given that Hezbollah will have no pretext to reject it anymore.”


Nadine Elali tweets @Nadine_Elali

Hezbollah member Emad Ayyad celebrates with friends and family in Beirut on November 25, 2014, after being released by Syrian rebels during a prisoner swap. (AFP Photo/STR)

What if Hezbollah has Nusra or ISIS militant captives, too?"