When Syrian rebels stopped two buses of Lebanese travelers in the spring and took 11 passengers hostage, they set off a cascade of fallout: riots at the Beirut airport, retaliation kidnappings against Syrians in Lebanon and a deepening of the sectarian character of the war.
Since that day in May, as civil war has raged and opposition fighters have gained momentum in their bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad, the rebels have continued to detain most of their prisoners, having released two as a good-will gesture. The rest, nine men who the captors insist are members of Hezbollah — which the prisoners deny — will be released only as part of a prisoner exchange, the rebel commander holding the group said.
The commander, Amar al-Dadikhi of the North Storm brigade, which has been holding the prisoners at an undisclosed location in Syria’s northern countryside, said in interviews that he would free the hostages if the Syrian government released two prominent opposition figures and if Lebanon freed all Syrian activists in government custody.
The men’s prospects for freedom, he said, are “in the Syrian government’s hands, and the Lebanese government’s hands.”
Their detention began after they were removed at gunpoint from buses driving though Syria while returning from a Shiite religious pilgrimage to Iran. The case has remained stubbornly unresolved, even as it has raised questions about the character and criminality of some of the rebels whom the West has hesitatingly backed.
The taking of the hostages also sullied the reputation of the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized antigovernment fighting groups. Without any public evidence to support the claim that the hostages are members of Hezbollah, the case has exposed the limits of the Free Syrian Army’s influence over rebels who fly its banner.
The Free Syrian Army’s leadership appears not to have been able to persuade Mr. Dadikhi to release the men, even as it seeks international recognition and tangible military aid, two desires undermined by the hostage case.
Mr. Dadikhi, a large and scarred man who is alternately praised by many opposition activists for battlefield bravery and whispered about as an accomplished smuggler who once maintained extensive ties to the government, claims to have 1,300 armed fighters and a network of cross-border contacts. His control of the border crossing that leads to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, makes him a power broker by default.
Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, a former Syrian military officer and one of the Free Syrian Army commanders in the Aleppo region, declined to comment on the case beyond saying that he was aware of the demands of Mr. Dadikhi, whom he called Abu Ibrahim.
“Abu Ibrahim has his requests,” he said. “If they are taken care of, he will free the Lebanese.”
Relatives of the hostages, reached by telephone in Beirut, expressed deep anger upon hearing Mr. Dadikhi’s demands. “Let them capture someone from the regime. Why abduct Lebanese? What do we have to do with the revolution?” said the wife of one of the hostages. “They are liars; they won’t release them. It is just blackmail.”
Mr. Dadikhi allowed two journalists from The New York Times to meet with two of the hostages — Ali Abbas, 30, and Ali Tormos, 54 — for about 30 minutes on Thursday afternoon. The men appeared to be in good health, and they said they and the other hostages had not been harmed.
They expressed weariness and asked that Lebanon and Syria meet their captors’ demands. “It has been a long time, and we want to go home,” Mr. Abbas said.
The interview was held in a former government office at the border crossing from Syria to Kilis, Turkey. Mr. Dadikhi agreed to leave the room while the hostages spoke. The meeting remained all but scripted.
Mr. Tormos called for the removal of the Assad government. In behavior common to hostages seeking good relations with their captors, he and Mr. Abbas praised Mr. Dadikhi and described their living conditions in cheerful terms.
At one point, Mr. Tormos gestured to Mr. Abbas and said: “He has gained weight. I have seen it.”
He added, “As God is my witness: No one has bothered us or hurt us or told us bad words.”
Mr. Abbas said that they had ample food, medicine and heat, and access to a television — conditions many people in Syria do not have as the war enters its second winter.
Mr. Dadikhi’s demands were carefully pitched to the message of the revolution, and he insisted that he wanted no money as part of a ransom deal. The prospects that Syria and Lebanon will accept his conditions are nonetheless uncertain.
The two opposition figures whose release he has sought by name — Tal al-Mallohi and Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush — have not been heard from during the hostages’ detention. Many activists fear that they are dead.
Ms. Mallohi, a teenage blogger at the time of her arrest, had no direct participation in the uprising. Her blog, which included poetry she wrote, expressed support for Palestinians and called for a better life in Syria. She was seized by security officers in late 2009 and jailed, accused of spying. The uprising began in 2011.
At the time, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information called her “the youngest prisoner of conscience in the Arab world.” As protests began against the Assad government, the opposition adopted her as a revolutionary symbol and an example of government repression.
Colonel Harmoush, the first prominent defector from the Syrian Army, fled Syria in June 2011 and claimed that the government had ordered the army to fire on civilians.
He disappeared from Turkey in August 2011 and soon appeared on Syrian state television to recant his statements, in what the opposition called a coerced appearance.
Mr. Dadikhi acknowledged that Ms. Mallohi and Colonel Harmoush might be dead, and he said that if the government had killed them, he would not retaliate. “We will not do the same as the regime and kill our prisoners,” he said.
Mr. Dadikhi also demanded that Lebanon release any anti-Assad activists it had arrested since the uprising began. He said he did not have a count of activists in Lebanese custody, but he suggested that the number could be up to a hundred.
He added that he had tried to contact the American Embassy in Turkey to broker the hostages’ release, but that he had received no reply.