Hizballah Syria prisoner swap puts pressure on Lebanon's government

Hizballah Syria prisoner swap puts pressure on Lebanon's government
Shia group secures release of fighter from armed Sunni group in Syria, as Lebanese government struggles to free soldiers captured by militants in Lebanon.
3 min read
27 November, 2014
Hizballah's Imad Ayyad receieved a hero's welcome when he returned to Beirut [AFP]
Still dressed in military fatigues, Imad Ayyad was lifted onto the shoulders of his Hizballah comrades at his home in Dahieh, south Beirut, as they celebrated his freedom after months of captivity.

The Shia organisation struck a major political victory by negotiating his release with a Sunni group at war with Bashar al-Assad's regime. He arrived home Tuesday, 25 November.

Ayyad is said to have been held by the Coalition of Western Qalamoun, an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, although other reports state that it was the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise, al-Nusra Front, that held the militant.

After two months of negotiations, Ayyad was released in exchange for two rebel fighters.

Hizballah has sent thousands of its fighters into Syria to aid Assad's campaign against rebel forces. Many of those killed in Syria are reportedly buried in low-key funerals, to deflect attention from Hizballah's role.

Hizballah's operations in Syria are usually shrouded in secrecy. Ayyad’s release was a rare exception.

The group and its allies had also previously criticised the idea of prisoner swaps - with Mohamed Raad, the head of its political wing, saying such a move would be a "surrender". 

Hizballah soon backtracked after facing pressure from captive fighters' families.

Rule of law

The Lebanese government is said to have adopted a semi-official policy of negotiating with hostage-takers in an attempt to retrieve soldiers captured by militants operating in Lebanon. Calls for negotiations increased after armed groups executed three hostages captured in Arsal in August.

Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, a member of a crisis committee set up to secure their release, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that he preferred not to compare its efforts with Hizballah's recent deal.

Hizballah had used its own prisoners as leverage, he said, whereas the government works within the boundaries of the law.

Nevertheless, Abu Faour said he believed that Hizballah's prisoner swap aided the Lebanese government's negotiations.

Qassem Hashem, an MP for Nabih Berri's Development and Liberation bloc, said the deal was "a patriotic accomplishment by Hizballah, which freed a Lebanese citizen from the hands of terrorist groups".
     [Hizballah] voted against prisoner swaps, then allowed itself to go ahead with it.
- Amar Houri, Future Party

Hashem also stressed the swap "introduced a new approach to deal with the issue of the abducted soldiers based on the principles of equality, confidentiality, and the refusal of extortion".

However, Amar Houri, a parliamentary representative of the Future Party, a rival of Hizballah, criticised the group's apparent U-turn. "It voted against prisoner swaps, then allowed itself to go ahead with it," he said.

Families in limbo

Meanwhile, in Riad al-Solh square in downtown Beirut, grief-stricken families of abducted Lebanese soldiers hold a sit-in. They said they were devastated that Hizballah managed its own deal to bring its members home, while the Lebanese government had failed to free their loved ones.

Hussein Yusuf, the father of an abducted soldier, denounced the Lebanese government.

"The government used to tell us that Hizballah was the one hindering the negotiations with the abductors," he said.

Protests against the government's perceived inability to free the soldiers would be stepped up on Friday, he said.

The mother of another captive soldier pleaded with Hizballah's spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to help free her son, as it had managed with its own fighters. Families also called on al-Nusra Front to make a statement denying that it was hindering negotiations.

Many Lebanese analysts are now comparing the release of Ayyad with previous deals between Hizballah and Israel, when the group won applause in the Arab world for its steps to free militants held by Tel Aviv. 

What was common to both situations was how the Lebanese government looked powerless. Now, Hizballah have stepped in to fill the void and appear to have come out as the stronger.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.