Ana Maria Luca

The negotiator

Ahmad Fleeti (L) in Arsal.

At the end of October 2013, in a room on the ground floor of the municipality building of Arsal, Ahmad Fleeti was pessimistic about the situation in his village. He was surrounded by five Syrian refugees; four men and a woman. They all had complaints: having just arrived from Syria, where rebels were getting ready for a major battle with Hezbollah and the Syrian Army, they had set up their tents on someone’s land, and the landowner had asked them to evacuate. This was a few days before the battle of Qalamoun began.


Fleeti called in a municipality councilman and told him to either negotiate with the owner or find the refugees a house. To rent a house the refugees would have to pay about $500 a month and prices were steadily on the rise. “We’ll have many more refugees with the Qalamoun battle on the horizon,” Fleeti explained as the refugees and the local council member were leaving.


An imminent and terrifying war was coming. “We’ll be dragged, sucked into it. If Hezbollah goes into the Qalamoun Mountains, the rebels will shell the Bekaa Valley,” he said, breathing in deeply and leaning back in his chair. “The battle in Qalamoun will be much more serious than Qusayr.”


The battle in Qalamoun was indeed much more serious. A few months later, many radical rebels took refuge in Arsal. Ten months later, the Lebanese Army clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the hills of Arsal after the jihadists tried to take over the village. Scores of Lebanese soldiers and policemen were taken hostage; some were beheaded. All attempts to negotiate with the jihadists had failed, including the attempts made by the Qatari delegate acting as official mediator, leading Lebanese authorities to consider Ahmad Fleeti for the task. Last Thursday, Information Minister Ramzi Jreij officially announced that all sides had accepted Fleeti as the official mediator in negotiations for the release of the captive Lebanese servicemen.


Why Fleeti, the deputy mayor of the border town, one might ask. The choice might seem strange, even a bit desperate, but Fleeti has experience negotiating with Syrian jihadists, in addition to knowing the people and the terrain.


A small town deputy mayor


I first spoke with Fleeti in September 2012. Arsal had been back in the news for almost a year, as Syrian refugees from Homs and Qusayr began to pour in to the Lebanese town through the farmlands straddling the border. They had no other choice: the border between Homs and Lebanon’s Akkar had been mined by the Syrian Army after the siege of Tal Kalakh. The Syrian Army made several incursions into Lebanese territory, killing several farmers and shelling farmlands by night. The Syrian Air Force even bombed locations around the village in search of rebels.


At the time, it was Ali Hojeiri, Arsal’s municipality chief, who handled the crisis and media relations. Several other municipality council members were also involved in aiding and assigning housing to refugees. Hojeiri was a jolly fellow who loved speaking to journalists. He received them in his office, ordered traditional black coffee and tea, gathered several council members, refugees and villagers and had them tell their stories.


One day, however, I found Hojeiri in Fleeti’s office. There had been a few raids by the Syrian Army and Damascus, as well as some politicians in Beirut, accused the town of harboring rebels and helping them smuggle weapons.


Fleeti took over the conversation, responding to questions Hojeiri was not prepared to answer. He drew maps of the farmlands, illustrating what was where and how “they” might have done it. He knew exactly what had happened in every case, knew precisely the number of refugees and who needed what. He had designed plans for Arsal’s urban development so that the village could absorb the refugee population. The refugees were his favorite topic — he knew everything about them; where they came from, how they had arrived, and what aid was being distributed where.


I’ve interviewed Fleeti scores of times since then. He has not answered all of my questions and I’ve taken some of his answers with a grain of salt. When he felt the truth might damage Arsal’s reputation, he has avoided topics or framed his answers carefully.


The tit-for-tat kidnappings


In the summer of 2013 we went back to Arsal, and after spending almost three hours in his office — indicating we had no intention of leaving without some answers concerning the kidnapping spree in east Bekaa – Fleeti cleared his office and started to explain the situation to us.


He had a whole network of relationships with local authorities, and not just in the Syrian border towns. He had gone to Syria and come back through the hills like smugglers do just to familiarize himself with the phenomenon. He knew there was a gang of so-called rebels in Maara, Syria, who were more into kidnapping for ransom than fighting Assad or waging jihad. But he said they weren’t any less dangerous than the jihadists.


“People from Syria call me sometimes: ‘Look, Fleeti, there is word that there is a Lebanese guy who was brought here,’” he said over a cup of coffee. “It takes a lot of socializing. We talk, I have to go and sit with them and talk and that’s how we solve a hostage situation. We have to. The authorities rarely get involved. When a Shiite from the clans is kidnapped in Syria, the clans kidnap people from Arsal, so we have to get involved in the negotiations,” he said. Fleeti says it was typically truck drivers who smuggled fuel from Syria who became victims of kidnapping, though sometimes it had been ambulances transporting wounded Syrians.


Fleeti drank a lot of coffee in the summer of 2013. He negotiated tit-for-tat kidnappings, and managed several standoffs between Shiite clans and Syrian rebels. “That’s how it goes here: we drink coffee, a lot of it, and we talk, and talk, and talk.”


That’s how the “sharia of the smuggler” works, he says; the law employed by locals in the absence of any state-sponsored rule of law. Arsal had, and probably still has, three policemen at a checkpoint meant to prevent foreigners from entering the farmlands off the main road. On the army base, we discovered five soldiers and a lieutenant — even after the base was bombed by the Syrian Army there has been no increase in security measures there.


Fleeti has sometimes made light of the situation, and sometimes become very angry. “We asked the Army to come here and defend this town so many times, since the beginning of the war in Syria. They never came,” he said. This has been true every single time we have interviewed him.


The jihadists in Arsal


Between May and June 2014, Syrians and Lebanese were kidnapped, tortured and even killed by a group of armed jihadists that wandered the hills of Arsal. Mayor Ali Hojeiri did not want to talk about it or even acknowledge whether or not he was informed.


Fleeti, however, was obviously aware of the danger, although he tried to downplay it. For the first time in two years he seemed worried. Fleeti restated that there hadn’t been any real rule of law in his village since Camille Chamoun’s presidency. The only law the town could follow was the law of the clans, he said. “Here there is only private justice. Murder is avenged with murder, unless the family of the perpetrator pays. When the Syrians came, they had to follow these rules, and the state can rarely have a say,” he told me.


Fleeti admitted, however, that the Nusra Front may have been involved in some of the crime-related incidents. Some of the Syrian refugees call on Nusra’s emirs to act as judges in family feuds or honor crimes: they have no other authority to turn to, he said, and Nusra more or less controls the border. “The government is not present here at all,” Fleeti stressed. “Nusra might be dealing with these issues because the undocumented refugees can’t seek justice from the Lebanese government.”

Two months later, Nusra Front and ISIS militants stormed the village and tried to take control of it. The Lebanese Army intervened and that’s when LAF soldiers were kidnapped. For a while, it seemed like Fleeti was trying not to get involved and he stopped talking to journalists. It was not until he was appointed as official negotiator that he spoke to the Lebanese daily Al-Liwaa in detail regarding his appointment. “I already have ties with the kidnappers as I am not aligned with any political party,” he said. “When I went to the mountains outside Arsal and met ISIS, I told them Abu Faour wanted to communicate through me, and that I hailed from Arsal. They showed some responsiveness and said that they, too, wanted to communicate. They did not speak of any demands, but I had the impression that they wanted a mediator from the town of Arsal.”

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609




Ahmad Fleeti (L) in Arsal.

It takes a lot of socializing. We talk, I have to go and sit with them and talk and that’s how we solve a hostage standoff. We have to. The authorities rarely get involved. When a Shiite from the clans is kidnapped in Syria, the clans kidnap people from Arsal, so we have to get involved in the negotiations.”