On Saturday, October 19, Beirut International Airport was brimming with joyous cheers and loud chants of excitement, as its entire reception room of arriving flights was crowded with people. Upon an unfamiliar glance, one would safely assume that these people were awaiting the return of close relatives who had just completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca—a centuries old Muslim tradition. However, the pilgrims they were waiting for were not family members, but nine Lebanese hostages who were finally coming home after being kidnapped for over a year and five months by the Syrian opposition force Northern Storm Brigade (NSB)—one of the many groups fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad.
The hostage dilemma revolved around a single simplistic narrative.a In May 2012, tensions between the Syrian opposition and Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and Shiite militant group, were high. The nine Shiite Lebanese hostages were on a pilgrimage trip to Iran and while passing through Northern Syria, they were “mistaken” for Hezbollah fighters and were subsequently taken as hostages by members of the Northern Storm Brigade. This was the Syrian opposition’s first real attempt at deterring Hezbollah from entering the fight to help Assad. It also occurred back when the Syrian opposition had more leverage and consistency over its internal affairs. Currently, coherent leadership among the various opposition forces has run amuck. Consistent agreeable communication between the Free Syrian Army and the Northern Storm Brigade has fallen short. Tactically effective military attacks have been almost nonexistent for months, signaling the loss of political determination. During this short period of time in which the circumstances in Syria changed, the possibility for a hostage release became increasingly inevitable.
In contrast to the straightforward sequence of events that led to the kidnapping, the deal to free the hostages was intricately convoluted (welcome to Middle Eastern politics!). The deal was struck between Lebanese General Security head Abbas Ibrahim, Syrian President Assad, and Qatari and Turkish officials only after Lebanese fighters kidnapped two Turkish pilots in August 2013, in an attempt to bargain with the Turkish and Qatari governments, who are major patrons of the Syrian opposition. On the surface, this deal seems like a win-win situation for all the groups. Lebanon receives its pilgrims, Turkey receives its kidnapped pilots, the Syrian opposition gets 127 female prisoners released by Assad, Assad only has to release these politically meaningless prisoners, and the Qataris appear to be the peaceful effective mediators of this whole political scenario. However, the implications of this hostage release are much more drastic and informative than they appear.
A high-level security source well acquainted with the deal claims that it was internal conflict between members of the Northern Storm Brigade that allowed for the terms of the deal to change. This is conclusive proof that the Syrian opposition, which was never known for its organization, is slipping even further down the path of chaos and discord, as the rift between its various poorly connected rebel groups widens. This also creates a power vacuum, which may eventually be filled by better organized Al-Qaeda sponsored groups, such as the Al-Nusra front and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Meanwhile, the event highlights the increasing strength and stability of Syria and its allies over the rebel groups. While Assad can lead with ease (which is evidenced by the sense of stability in Damascus), the opposition is struggling to even think strategically anymore. Many of their attacks and sieges have been on areas that have no tactical value, serving no other purpose than fulfilling ideological and extremist religious motives for killing and destruction. Even their latest attack on the center of the city of Hama, has only been successful in brutality, not in calculated effectiveness.
More important than the internal signals that can be interpreted is the fact that external forces can now be proven as key players in the Syrian conflict. Prior to the hostage deal, the Turkish government was known for aiding the rebel groups. However, most people believed that the rebels were up to their own faculties as to how they planned on approaching the war. The onset of the pilot exchange is simple proof that Turkey is just as vested in the Syrian opposition as Iran is with its Hezbollah fighters. While many news sources present a picture of Turkey as a passive ally to the rebels, any experienced political scientist would readily make this extrapolation, seeing as the Turkish pilots would never have been considered proper “currency of exchange” by the Northern Storm Brigade, unless Turkey had such strong pull. A good, yet crude, comparison to make is as follows: Hezbollah did not enter Syria, officially that is, until the Iranians gave them the green light. Likewise, the opposition did not give up the hostages until Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, found himself in a political corner—with the kidnapping of the pilots in August—and needed to act. These external forces serve to show how an initial simple protest for democratic change has transformed into this proxy battle with dozens of variables that no one can claim to accurately understand.
Looking at the hostage exchange and the Syrian opposition’s poorly guided attacks, one would be inclined to say that the Syrian crisis may be reaching an end, although this would be a naïve claim at best, since it is frustratingly difficult to predict at this point in time. What we do see is that the opposition is becoming poorly coordinated and that Al-Qaeda linked groups are filling the gaps. It is clear that Assad is gaining much ground and will most likely survive in his struggle to remain in power. Perhaps it is even clearer that Syria is in a crisis that will only be solved specifically through local Middle Eastern mediators, as evidenced by the success of the hostage exchange. Unfortunately, whether this happens overnight or over several months is a question that is almost as difficult to answer as the many others that have been posed on Syria as a whole.