In a extensive report released Wednesday, NYT journalist Robert Worth documents how the militant group played a crucial role in securing the release of two dozen Qataris after they were kidnapped by a Shiite militant group in Iraq
Beirut: Lebanon’s Hezbollah was involved in a complex hostage exchange operation in Iraq, which entailed a four-town swap in neighboring Syria “with dark overtones of ethnic cleansing,” according to a report released by the New York Times (NYT).
In an extensive report released Wednesday, NYT journalist Robert Worth documents how the militant group played a crucial role in securing the release of two dozen Qataris – including members of the ruling Al Thani family – after they were kidnapped by a Shiite militant group while on a hunting trip in the southern Iraqi province of Muthanna in November 2017.
The ensuing precarious situation the captives found themselves in led the Qatari royal family to take drastic measures to ensure their safe return, concocting an intricate deal that brought together Iran, Hezbollah, and Qatar at the negotiating table.
The hostages were seen as a substantial pawn for Iran in its aim to further consolidate its grip on Syria while shifting the delicate geopolitical landscape in the war-torn country, explains Worth.
Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, coupled with the Qatari’s vast wealth, would play a crucial role in this endeavor.
The negotiations on the Iranian side of the spectrum were led by General Qassim Suleimani, who controls the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and whose top priority is to “prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.”
Suleimani and Hezbollah’s leadership both shared the same objective at this juncture, and thus he “proposed an asymmetrical agreement that came to be known as the four-towns deal.”
According to Worth, “Hezbollah would end its siege of two Sunni rebel strongholds in Syria near the Lebanese border, Madaya and Zabadani, whose residents posed a continuing threat to the Assad regime in Damascus”, and in exchange, “the Qatari-funded rebels would end their siege of two Shiite towns in the northwest, Fua and Kefraya.”
To further underscore their demand, Hezbollah “sent a high-ranking emissary to Doha and made the conditions very clear: The captives would be freed in exchange for Qatar’s help in making the four-towns deal happen.”
After months of negotiations involving several players, a Qatari team arrived in Iraq in April 2017 with $360 million in order to set the plan in motion, only for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to seize the 23 bags of cash and have them “transferred to a vault in Iraq’s Central Bank.”
Given the fact that the hostages were held by Kata’ib Hezbollah, a Shiite faction formed in Iraq and supervised by Iran’s Quds Force, Worth maintains that the “Qataris agreed to provide another delivery of cash, via Beirut, of roughly the same amount.”
In that case, he argues, Hezbollah would have received a fair cut of the load as the group maintains “a firm control over the Beirut airport, and it would have no trouble ensuring that the cash would pass through.”