BEIRUT: The freeing of Lebanese nuns held by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels for Syrian female detainees has enraged supporters of the Syrian regime, who are demanding that similar deals include their family and friends.
The Lebanon-Syria border crossing at Jdaidet Yabouss was overflowing with media late Sunday to cover the swap, which finally came to fruition thanks to mediation by Qatari officials, and a ransom that was reportedly paid to the rebels.
The 13 nuns and their three female helpers had been held since early December by militants from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group that has been prominent in the monthslong campaign by the regime to take the Qalamoun region, north of Damascus.
The nuns were seized from their convent in Maaloula and taken to the nearby town of Yabroud, which they were then forced to leave in recent weeks when the regime offensive in the area heated up.
But the swap that led to their release contained a one-two-three punch to the gut of many regime supporters. The first was that the regime had once again concluded a swap for non-Syrian detainees, while the second was the sight of the nuns telling the media that they had been treated well by their captors, who are labeled terrorists by pro-government media on a daily basis. A third was the gratitude expressed to Qatar, another daily target of the official media and other pro-Damascus outlets.
Still photographs and video footage of the swap quickly circulated on social media – several nuns are seen speaking warmly with their Nusra captors, and asking them to pass on greetings to a senior official from the group who was with them during their captivity.
Also sparking anger and ridicule was the sight of a militant, presumably from the Nusra Front, carrying an elderly nun who was too infirm to walk to the vehicle that would take her to freedom.
A pro-regime Facebook page from the Alawite town of Salhab in rural Hama highlighted the kinds of complaints that have arisen in the wake of the swap.
“We all followed the main news item, the liberation of the nuns of Maaloula, on the world’s television screens ... But you freed people who said thank you to the Nusra Front,” one contributor wrote.
“There is a question that must be answered: What happened to the women and children kidnapped in rural Latakia? What happened to the hundreds of women and children kidnapped from [the Damascus suburb of] Adra?”
The incidents referred to rebel attacks on areas inhabited primarily by minority communities. The contributors said they were hesitant to point out the lack of media attention to Alawites held by rebel groups – they said that if they did so, they would be accused of being sectarian.
“I don’t want to speak in sectarian terms ... but around 70 media outlets headed for the Syrian border to film the release of the nuns, who forgot to thank the [Syrian] leadership and the [Syrian] army. Tomorrow, the world will be talking about them, and thanking Qatar, the Vatican and the Kremlin, and half the world,” the contributor complained.
The images of the nuns interacting cordially with their captors generated angry reactions, as well as more obscene commentary.
Another common complaint was that the authorities were negotiating the release of non-Syrians, while hundreds of Syrian civilians and military personnel are believed to remain in the hands of various rebel groups.
Over a year ago, 48 Iranian nationals were handed over by the rebels in exchange for hundreds of Syrian detainees held by the authorities, many of whom were rounded up for suspected anti-government activity.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, weighed in on the issue, detailing how its efforts to engineer prisoner swaps had gone nowhere due to the regime’s intransigence.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground for its information, said that Alawite-majority areas of the provinces of Tartous, Latakia, Homs and Hama had witnessed “huge outrage” at the release of the nuns, because the regime “in many cases refuses swap deals for kidnapped Alawite civilians.”
As for efforts to free Alawite military personnel, the Observatory mentioned the yearlong saga of four Alawite noncommissioned officers who were captured by rebels in Deir al-Zor. The Observatory said it acted as a mediator, with the rebels demanding the release of 200 detainees in exchange for the four.
“The answer, in writing, was ‘Execute them. We don’t need them,’” the Observatory said. A second rejection by the authorities followed, even after the rebels reduced their demand to only 50 detainees, it added.
In addition to the case of the Iranian nationals, nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were released in October after being held for more than a year by rebels north of Aleppo, also with Qatari mediation.
The Observatory said that some families of individuals currently held by the rebels had the common reaction: “It seems that for the regime, Hezbollah and the Iranians are more important than our children.”