In early April, a secretive deal between Qatar, Iran and several Syrian and Iraqi militant groups to free a number of kidnapped Qatari Royals while simultaneously allowing the evacuation of besieged Shi’a and Sunni towns in Syria appeared close to reaching a conclusion. All seemed set for one of the most complex trades of the Syrian civil war until disaster stuck. In this piece, former British Army Intelligence officer Lewis Sage-Passant examines how Tehran and Doha conducted secretive negotiations with Syria’s patchwork network of rebel groups, and how those negotiations appeared to unravel in the most deadly way.
A Qatari jet touched down in the middle of the night at Baghdad International Airport, and was quietly moved off to one side to a secure government terminal. Several Qatari officials disembarked the plane carrying heavy duffel bags, which they refused to allow Iraqi officials to search. In the bags were believed to be millions of dollars in cash, a ransom for kidnapped members of the al Thani tribe – Qatar’s Royal family – who were being held as a bizarre element of a population-swap deal in Syria. The jet arrived in Baghdad to retrieve 26 of the kidnapped Qataris who remained in captivity, most likely somewhere in southern Iraq, in what now appears to be part of a wider agreement to evacuate four besieged Syrian towns in exchange for their release.
The hostages, many of whom are members of the ruling al Thani tribe, were abducted in December 2015 by a large militia force in southern Iraq’s Muthanna province while on a falconry and bustard-hunting trip. At dawn on December 16, 2015, several hundred unidentified militia fighters were reported to have entered the party’s desert camp close to the Saudi Arabian border, seizing the Qataris and several of their south-Asian staff while leaving several Saudi Arabian, Iraqi and Kuwaiti occupants behind. As the region is predominantly Shi’a, suspicion quickly fell on the region’s tribal militias rather than transnational militant groups such as the Islamic State, however no clear public claim of responsibility was made and speculation bounced the blame between the region’s repertoire of tribes. Since then, Doha was rumoured to have been involved in talks with various tribal leaders from the Basra area while largely circumventing the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
The hostages had been held for around 18 months in what initially appeared to be a simple, albeit grand-scale, kidnap-for-ransom type incident. This situation changed in early 2017, when the captives suddenly found themselves being used as leverage in the broader proxy conflict occurring throughout the Levant region.
Doha has long employed its enormous hydrocarbons wealth and strategic location to centre itself as a mediator in negotiations between various state and non-state actors, which in turn has allowed Qatar to punch above its weight geopolitically, however this episode has revealed the deadly risks which accompany operating at such a high diplomatic level.
The Qatari group’s abductors are believed to be members of Ketaeb Hezbollah, which is one of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ main proxy forces in Iraq, whose former leader, Akram al Ka’abi, has led Iranian-backed militia units in Syria. In particular, al Ka’abi has spent much of his time deployed in Syria focused on the defence of Fua and Kefraya, two predominantly Shi’a towns in northern Syria that have been besieged by Sunni Islamist groups for over two years. It is here where the link to the Qatari hostages was first established.
The Qataris were introduced as part of a population swap deal – most likely by al Ka’abi himself – in January, although Iran has been rumoured to have been brokering the wider plan since 2015. Iranian officials negotiated directly with Ahrar al Sham leaders as Iranian-backed militias found themselves central to the defence of the villages. The Qataris became leverage to hold Qatar accountable for the deal, where residents were able to leave Fua and Kefraya in exchange for the evacuation of two Sunni towns in a synchronised territory swap. Residents of the Shi’a towns would be transported to Aleppo (now under the control of the Syrian Arab Army and other Iranian-allied forces), while residents of the Sunni areas Zabadani and Madaya (situated in southern Syria between Damascus and the Lebanese border) would be transported to rebel-held areas of Idlib province. The deal was finalized in early April after nearly two years of negotiations between the Sunni militant group Ahrar al Sham, Iran, and now Qatar. In early April, rumours circulated that Doha had issued a $2m payment to secure proof that the remaining captives were still alive, and that two members of the party had been released as a gesture of goodwill as the Syria deal approached its conclusion. All looked set for the Qataris to return home and for the malnourished populations of the besieged towns to evacuate to safety.
On April 15 as residents of Fua and Kefraya boarded civilian buses to travel to Aleppo, an explosives-laden vehicle crashed through local defences and detonated amongst the gathered evacuees. The attack killed 126 people and wounded nearly 300, making it one of the single most lethal events of the Syrian conflict. While sources involved in the negotiations claimed that the attack delayed the process but did not derail it altogether, the Qatari jet only left Baghdad airport on April 21, indicating that the deal had stalled and that the Royals found themselves held in limbo.
While the evacuation deal appeared to originally be a simple case of relocating four small local populations – a feat which has been repeated several times throughout the conflict – the intimate involvement of regional powers underscores how deeply embedded the conflict has become in the broader proxy war. The exclusion of the Iraqi and Syrian governments from the negotiations also underscores the lack of influence held by both in large swathes of their respective sovereign territories, and the growing influence of non-state forces.
Preliminary investigations suggest the vehicle carrying the April 15 suicide bomb had been driven from nearby Sunni rebel-held territory, most likely deployed by a faction that felt marginalized by the deal, and who may now be seeking last minute opportunities to extract ransom payments from the Qataris following rumours of cash-laden aircraft in Baghdad. While Doha has leveraged its enormous oil and gas wealth into the creation of a diplomatic profile uncharacteristically influential for such a tiny nation, this episode demonstrates the dangers of entering into the quagmire of Syria’s proxy war. Had Qatar remained neutral, it is likely that the captive al Thani members would have been released within a few short weeks of their kidnapping following a swift ransom payment. Instead, the Royals were held until 21 April 2017, when they were finally released to the Qatari embassy in Baghdad. With Doha having long been accused of proving support to various – predominantly Sunni – forces in Syria, the fate of the kidnapped Royals found itself at the mercy of the chaotic nature of the wider Levant conflict.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.
Photo credit: Qatari Special Forces Officer during counter terrorism exercises in Zikrit, Qatar. U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos