BEIRUT: Negotiations to free 19 Lebanese Army soldiers and 17 Internal Security Forces personnel captured by Syrian rebels in the border town of Arsal have come to a standstill, said the Syrian go-between in contact with the militants.
“Their demands are that the Roumieh inmates [members of Fatah al-Islam, arrested in 2007] be released if found innocent. They are also demanding the protection of wounded [Syrian] refugees and to ensure that refugees turned away by the regime can safely return to find asylum in Lebanon,” said Ahmad al-Qusair, a former Free Syrian Army (FSA) spokesperson and now the liaison for the Committee of Muslim Scholars with the militants in efforts to free the captured.
The committee is the only line of communication between the Lebanese government and the rebels.
However, Qusair said during an interview with The Daily Star that so far the negotiations were at an impasse because conceding to the militants’ demands would come at too high a cost, as far as the government was concerned.
Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has the final word in the matter of choosing to acquiesce, Qusair said.
Clashes erupted between rebel militants from Syria, who had fled to the outskirts of Arsal following defeats in Qalamoun, and the Army Aug. 2, after the arrest of Imad Jomaa, the rebel commander of the Fajr al-Islam brigade.
Qusair said the clashes erupted spontaneously after the Army refused to release Jomaa and were not the intended outcome.
“In the beginning, the militants only wanted Jomaa,” he said. “Nabil al-Halabi [a member of the negotiating team] and I were in contact with the fighters and the Army. Three negotiation propositions were presented, including Abu Ahmad [Jomaa] being released, but only promises were made [by the government] with no guarantees.”
During the early days of negotiation, Qusair’s main objective was to put the detained Jomaa in contact with his battalion.
“This was rejected by the government,” he said. “The militants are still asking for Jomaa.”
The militants in Arsal fought in the Syrian towns of Qusair, al-Nabi and Yabroud, he said, and almost all have families among the refugee population in Arsal.
In fact, before Jomaa was arrested in the early hours of Aug. 2, he came into the town “as a civilian” to spend the night with his wife. That morning he was on his way to the Syrian village of Jibbi, in Qalamoun, where Qusair claims fighting was ongoing between rebels and the Syrian regime.
According to details relayed to Qusair by Jomaa’s driver, known as “Firas,” a Humvee belonging to the Army had chased him and captured the battalion leader alone.
“Abu Ahmad told me many times that he is completely against bringing the war to Lebanon, and he still believes that,” Qusair said.
But unanswered questions remain as to what propelled the militants to exchange fire with the Army for five days. Qusair said the militants were prompted to attack because artillery had hit a refugee camp in the town, a claim contrasting sharply with the Army’s narrative that checkpoints had been attacked and their soldiers taken.
“I told the guys, what you’re doing is wrong,” he said. “They answered by saying that they knew what they did was wrong, but that it was too late, because civilians have been involved, residents of Arsal and refugees.”
Qusair insisted that Jomaa’s recent pledge to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria did not mean his battalion subscribed to the same methods of the group operating in northern Syria and Iraq.
“ISIS in Lebanon is different than ISIS in Iraq. These used to be average FSA fighters, I used to spend time with them,” he said. “I would not have accepted to negotiate there [in Iraq], but here, I did.”
Qusair became acquainted with the militants during the early days of the Syrian war.
In the brief lull during the clashes in Arsal, the Committee of Muslim Scholars was allowed to enter the town and negotiate with the militants face to face. Qusair recalled being in the convoy as it came under fire, injuring committee member Sheikh Salem Rafei.
“We didn’t sleep that night,” he said. “But we agreed on a few things like letting a delegation of Arsalis take the town, plus assigning Syrian activists in each of the camps, withdrawing the militants from Arsal and releasing three captives as a good will gesture.”
The militants withdrew from Arsal after five days of clashes with the Army. They took the captives with them.
Qusair named Abu Malek al-Shami as the key figure from the Nusra Front who led the Arsal battles. “He said to me: If there was someone else from the Nusra Front negotiating, they would not have been as nice.”