A map of Qatar, June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration
CAIRO – 16 March 2018: The New York Times shed light on one of the most mysterious hunting trips in the world, which took place in 2015 and included members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family. This trip to hunt houbara, a bug-eyed and long-legged bird about the size of a large chicken, changed the map of the Middle East and reshaped the region with new players.
The piece by Robert F. Worth, published in the New York Times on March 14 under the title “Kidnapped Royalty Become Pawns in Iran’s Deadly Plot”, clarified the reasons of the Arab quartet’s boycott of Qatar, which was backed by Washington, who gave its blessing to the blockade hoping to limit the tiny emirate’s ambitions.
The New York Times story tells about a bunch of royal falconers pursuing a bird, the houbara, in the southern desert of Iraq, 450 miles from Doha, in late November 2015. Their hunting trip came to a terrifying end when a number of militants kidnapped them while they were asleep in their luxurious tents.
The kidnappers turned out to be a Shiite militia with ties to Iran. That effectively put their [the kidnapped royals] fate in the hands of a man who is perhaps the most powerful military officer in the Middle East: an Iranian general named Qassim Suleimani, who controls the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, along with a far-flung network of proxy forces and allies across the region. He reports directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is widely considered a more influential figure than the country’s foreign minister or president. He has directed Iran’s successful efforts to disrupt American policy in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003; a 2012 magazine profile in Wired called him “the world’s most dangerous” man.
The capture of the Qatari royals was a golden prize for Iran, as they found the chance to execute a plan that was impossible to be applied in reality. The so-called “four-town deal” was fundamentally proposed to widen Iran’s domination in Syria.
Just before the Qatari hostages were taken, Iran had begun a bold effort to make this demographic transfer happen. At a secret meeting in Istanbul facilitated by the United Nations in September 2015, an envoy from Suleimani’s Quds Force proposed a symmetrical agreement that came to be known as the “four-towns deal.” 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. In exchange, the Qatari-funded rebels would end their siege of two Shiite towns in the northwest, Fua and Kefraya. The four-town deal would accomplish two goals for Iran: clearing out the rebel threat in a strategic area, while rescuing the imperiled Shiites up north, whose plight had been a persistent rallying cry with Hezbollah’s Shiite base.
The details of the deal were vague at first, but at some point the Iranians even suggested that the residents could swap towns, with Sunni and Shiite Syrians literally trading places, perhaps inhabiting one another’s homes. They presented this as a humanitarian gesture: Ending the two sieges would benefit people in all four towns. But the rebel spokesmen in Istanbul angrily rejected the whole idea, calling it an arrogant effort to reshape Syria’s natural patchwork of diverse religions and ethnic groups with a crude sectarian calculus.
The cost to Qatar wound up far exceeding $360 million, the proposed amount to satisfy the Shiite militia, but ultimately cash was less important than the deal’s political dimension, according to the NYT story.
In order to retrieve its hostages, Qatar was made to negotiate a tightly choreographed population exchange in Syria, using the rebel militias it finances to forcibly uproot every resident of four strategically located towns. The transfers advanced Tehran’s larger goal of transforming Syria — along with Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen — into satellite states that will enshrine a dominant Iranian role across the region. The deal was a blow for the Trump administration’s goal of pushing back against Iranian aggression, and for thousands of starving Syrians, it meant being driven into exile by a shadowy agreement, with little say from Syria’s own government. What began as a brazen kidnapping eventually became a measure of the geopolitical forces tearing the Middle East apart, and of their human cost: corruption, sectarian hatred and terrorism. Everyone involved had something to hide — except, perhaps, the hapless hunters who set it all in motion.
With the kidnapped Qatari hunters, Iran acquired some very powerful leverage over those same rebels — or rather, over their chief benefactor in Doha. The plan for evacuating the four towns, left for dead after the talks in Istanbul, was back on the table.
Qatar was the perfect proxy player to execute the four-town deal; it was financing Sunni rebel factions in Syria (including the local branch of Al-Qaeda), hoping they would win the civil war and show gratitude to their sponsors. Instead, the Syrian war dragged on, the rebels grew more extreme and Qatar was tainted by its association with terrorist groups. In the end, Qatar managed to make enemies on both sides of the worsening sectarian divide, but still have the money that can make all dreams come true.
To negotiate the deal’s details with the Qatari government, Iran used Hezbollah as their messenger, the only group with trusted links to all the parties involved: Tehran, Doha and the Shiite militia that held the hostages in Iraq.
Working through Hezbollah also allowed Iran to maintain some control over the ransom negotiations, which might otherwise have ended in a fast cash payment for the Iraqi kidnappers. Instead, 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-town deal happen.
It took almost 16 months for the Qataris to finally find the man with the right clout and connections to close the deal. It happened in early April 2017, during the annual gathering of Arab interior ministers, held that year in Tunis. The Qatari minister was introduced to his Iraqi counterpart, Qassim al-Araji, a man with deep ties in the Shiite-militia world. Al-Araji, a square-faced 54-year-old, spent many years in exile in Iran and was twice imprisoned by American forces in Iraq a decade ago on suspicion of smuggling and distributing weapons to be used in attacking American troops. (He was released for lack of evidence.)
Al-Araji said he knew who had the hostages, though he did not name the group. As it turned out, it was Kata’ib Hezbollah, a Shiite faction formed in Iraq more than a decade ago that has mounted hundreds of attacks on American soldiers and was trained, funded and supervised by Iran’s Quds Force.
Al-Araji said he had a plan for freeing the hostages, according to a high-ranking Qatari official who recounted the conversation to me. But the plan came with an unusual condition. Al-Araji wanted authority to mediate the release personally, and he hinted that his Qatari counterpart should say nothing about the matter to anyone else in the Iraqi government, where sectarian and political divides create competing agendas. The Qatari agreed. Money was part of the agreement, a kind of sweetener to be added to the four-town deal.
The whole trade was endangered to be cancelled when Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi knew of the deal held between Qatar and his interior minister. Abadi ordered the bags holding the $360-million ransom, possessed by the Qatari delegation to free the hostages, to be impounded at Baghdad International Airport. However, Qatar committed to its part of the deal and ordered its militias to make the swap between the four towns’ residents.
The lengthy NYT story added that Qatar has paid fortunes to officers, cabinet members and lawmakers. None of this succeeded in getting the $360 million away from Abadi and his circles of allies.
However, the hostages were released with a warm farewell from the kidnappers.
There remains an obvious mystery in the case of the kidnapped Qataris. How, with the $360 million impounded, were the hostages released? One senior Iraqi official gave me the following answer: The Qataris agreed to provide another delivery of cash, via Beirut, of roughly the same amount. (It was Qassim Suleimani himself, I was told by another official, who made the final call to release the hostages.) As far as the location for a money drop goes, this makes sense: Hezbollah maintains a firm control over the Beirut airport, and it would have no trouble ensuring that the cash would pass through. If this is true, it would bring the total amount Qatar paid for its hostages to at least $770 million, and probably substantially more. I heard reports of several other multimillion-dollar payouts to various middlemen that I was unable to confirm. There is also the $2 million that an Al Thani family member paid to the Greek shoe salesman, and the bribes the Qatari envoys supposedly paid during their week in Baghdad. It is easy to imagine a total approaching $1 billion.
The ransom deal angered Qatar’s neighbors. The Saudis and Emiratis, who had long resented Qatar’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, were infuriated by the reports of heavy payments to Shiite militias.
“The ransom also began to figure, often in highly distorted form, in a Saudi-financed P.R. blitz that portrayed Qatar as a fountainhead of terrorism.
“The anti-Qatar campaign was a patchwork of true and false or questionable claims that only muddied the waters around the ransom and Qatar’s broader culpability in bankrolling Islamist groups.”
How much of the blame does Qatar deserve for all this wreckage? It has been involved in multimillion-dollar ransoms to free Al Qaeda captives before, including a Swiss woman held in Yemen in 2013.
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