The Deep Repercussions of a Bombing in Syria

Yesterday’s violent suicide bombing that killed at least 112 refugees in a bus convoy near Aleppo, Syria, derailed at least temporarily a complicated operation to evacuate Syrian civilians from four besieged towns in that country as well as help for the families of twenty-six Qatari men held hostage in Iraq.

The Qatari hostages have been the subject of a social media campaign to bring attention to their plight that is known as “OpFOQ,” and this website started to report on that campaign from the day it was launched.

As reported in the Guardian, negotiations to relieve innocent civilians in war-ravaged Syria have continued for two years and have been brokered by outside powers that included Qatar, Iran, and Lebanon. Residents in two Shi’a areas, Fua and Kefraya, in northern Syria, were to be transported by bus to east Aleppo, and then to Shi’a-controlled areas of Syria. Residents in two Sunni-controlled towns, Zabadani and Madaya, which are near the capital of Damascus, were then to be transported to rebel-held areas.

Iran is the dominant power in that part of the world that is majority Shi’a. Hezbollah, the regional power based in Lebanon, is Shi’a. Qatar and its ruling family, the Al Thani dynasty, are Sunni. The Qatari hostages, some of whom are members of the Al Thani royal family, were taken hostage in southern Iraq in December 2015 and are believed to be held by “Kata’eb Hezbollah, one of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ main proxies in Iraq, whose former leader, Akram al-Ka’abi, has led Iranian-backed militias in Syria,” as reported in the Guardian.

Thus, a desire to relieve suffering led to an agreement that was made possible in part by a desire to clean up some details in the relations among the region’s powers: if twenty-six men could be freed and restored to their families, good faith would have action supporting it.

As of this writing, no one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing of the bus convoy yesterday, a convoy that existed as one move in a multi-faceted regional chess game. No official statement has been released regarding the fate of the twenty-six Qatari hostages.

* * * *
Some background about the hostages:

The Qataris and several other nationals were kidnapped in December 2015, and since April 2016, when two of the hostages were freed, the missing men have been absent from the world’s headlines and attention as well, despite the fact that a handful of the hostages are members of the royal family of Qatar. Families are missing sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. The men were not taken by an official government entity, so groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been bystanders as the mystery deepened each day.

The men were sportsmen—falconers—who crossed the Saudi Arabian-Iraqi border with government-issued permits and their birds, and they set up camp in Iraq’s remote southern province, Al Muthanna. December is training season for the falcons because December is the breeding season for the houbara bustard, a turkey-like bird found in Central Asia that the falcons hunt.

Thus, a large falconry party of twenty-seven men and the birds they were training seen in that part of the world in December is nothing out of the ordinary. What followed was.

Al Muthanna is desert, sparsely populated, and only nominally governed by the politicians in Baghdad. The Imam al-Ali Brigade of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-backed Shi’a paramilitary force, controls much of the desert region of southern and western Iraq, where the kidnapping took place.

Between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on the night of December 16, 2015, while the group slept, a convoy of about 100 armed men in pickup trucks and vans descended on the hunting party’s camp, near Busaya in the Samawa desert, and took the entire group hostage. Not a shot was fired. The hunters who were taken hostage were almost all from Qatar, among them six members of the Qatari royal family, the Al Thani family. The fate of the falcons remains unknown.

No group claimed responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, and nine hostages were released or escaped within days—one Kuwaiti, two Saudis and six Qataris. None of the nine were members of the ruling Al Thani family of Qatar; all were servants of or helpers to the falconry party.

Ransom notes have appeared in the Iraqi media every so often, but their veracity is usually questioned. It appears that the hostages are to be used as “bargaining chips in negotiations to secure the release detainees held by armed factions in Syria,” but the incident took place fifteen months ago.

It is believed that the hostages may be held in small groups scattered among small villages near Basra, Iraq. Since the night of the kidnapping, December 16, 2015, only two hostages have been released: one member of the Al Thani family and a Pakistani aide who were both freed in April 2016.

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