Explaining The $1 Billion Hostage Deal FT Says Triggered Monday’s Qatar Drama

Well this is funny.

So according to a truly hilarious FT piece (hilarious because it underscores how comically absurd the dynamics have become in the three Sunni/Shia proxy wars raging in the Mideast), Saudi Arabia actually lost its collective shit with Qatar back in April, after Doha paid $700 million to Iran to rescue 26 members of a Qatari falconry party that were captured by Shia militias in Iraq.

Apparently, a couple dozen Qatari royals decided to take a family hunting trip to Iraq in December, 2015, where they were kidnapped by Kata’ib Hezbollah.

If you aren’t up on the situation in Iraq, it’s basically an Iranian client state at this point. Shia militias loyal to Iran’s powerful Quds Force essentially run the damn place. The US knows this and if we’re all being honest, those militias are one of the only reasons ISIS didn’t seize even larger swaths of territory in the country.

Also, you should know that Kata’ib Hezbollah is not a group with whom you want to fuck. They are part of the Iranian effort to expand Tehran’s regional influence (the so-called “Shiite crescent”) and they answer not to the Iraqi puppet government, but rather to the most dangerous man in the Mideast. “They report directly to Qassem Soleimani,” former US diplomat Ali Khedery said last month. That right there should tell you everything you need to know.

So yeah, 26 Qatari royals went hunting and got themselves kidnapped by an insanely dangerous militia whose only loyalty is to the Quds. Needless to say, that’s a bad spot to find yourself in.

This was reported months ago in several outlets including the Times. To wit:

More than a year ago, Shiite militants raced through the southern Iraqi desert in a convoy of sport utility vehicles and ambushed and abducted a party of well-armed falcon hunters that included members of the Qatari royal family.

For months, the kidnapped hunters were held as pawns in a complex regional game pitting Iranian proxies against those working on behalf of Qatar, armed groups in both Iraq and Syria, and ransom negotiations involving many millions of dollars.

On Friday, after 16 months in captivity, the hunting party walked free, returned by their captors to Iraq’s Interior Ministry in Baghdad, where officers scrutinized the Qataris’ passports and took their photographs and fingerprints, according to Wahab al-Taee, a spokesman for the ministry.

They were then delivered to the embassy of Qatar, which for days had stationed a plane at the airport in anticipation of their release. The Guardian reported earlier that a deal for the hostages’ freedom was imminent.

It is clear now that from the very start, the hunters’ abduction was linked to the civil war in Syria, which has drawn in regional powers in an increasingly complicated proxy war. On one side of the hostage negotiations were Shiite powers — Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah — which firmly support the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. On the other were the Sunni powers Qatar and Turkey, which fund and arm rebel groups trying to take down Mr. Assad’s government.

Their release, which involved the payment of millions of dollars in ransom to an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, was tied to a broader deal involving a trading of besieged sectarian populations among four towns in Syria, according to a senior Shiite leader in Iraq who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The Iraqi Shiite official said the release of the Qatari prisoners was linked to the safe evacuation of — and delivery of humanitarian aid to — residents of two Shiite villages in Idlib Province, Fouaa and Kfarya. They have been under government control but besieged by Sunni Islamist rebel groups backed by Turkey and Qatar.

The Syrian deal was negotiated separately before the fate of the hostages became entwined with the talks. As part of that agreement, residents of two predominantly Sunni villages, Madaya and Zabadani, that have been held by rebels but besieged by forces loyal to the Syrian government are to be bused to safety. Many of them, about 2,000 people, have already been evacuated from Madaya.

Two regional diplomats told FT that “they believed one of the Iraqi group’s motives for the kidnapping was to give Hizbollah and Iran leverage to negotiate the release of Shia fighters kidnapped by the radical Sunni group Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.”

That’s hilarious because that would be the same Tahrir al-Sham who, up until January, was Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Of course Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was al-Nusra up until July of 2016. Al-Nusra was al-Qaeda in Syria.

Got that? Here’s a quick recap: Kata’ib Hezbollah kidnapped Qatari royals likely on orders from the Quds, who were trying to get themselves some leverage to secure the release of four dozen Shia fighters who were themselves kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Syria, which was al-Nusra, which eventually became Jabhat Fateh al-Sham which then eventually became Tahrir al-Sham.

According to FT, Doha managed to obscure this whole thing by tying it to the “Four Towns Agreement” which you’ll recall involved a quid pro quo wherein al-Qaeda would let Shia residents in Foah and Kefraya evacuate if the government would let Sunni residents in Madaya and Zabadani get out of dodge.

Al-Qaeda had encircled Foah and Kefraya and Hezbollah had encircled Madaya and Zabadani.

Syria

Somehow, Qatar managed to use that agreement as cover to pay $120-$140 million to Tahrir al-Sham and another $80 million Ahrar al-Sham while funneling some $700 million to Tehran.

See? Everyone’s a winner!

Now I guess – and again, this is just that, a guess – the idea here was that Doha would get to funnel some much needed cash to Sunni rebels in Syria while simultaneously securing the release of the royal hunting party and at the end of the day, they could rationalize the whole thing by saying they helped facilitate the Four Towns Agreement.

That assessment is supported by the fact that, as The New York Times wrote on Monday morning, “Qatar is a sponsor of the Four Towns agreement in Syria, negotiated with Iran and Hezbollah, in which civilians trapped under siege by government troops or by rebel forces have been bused to other areas.”

That, in turn, supports this statement from the FT article attributed to a western diplomat: “Iran and Qatar had long been looking for a cover to do this [hostage] deal, and they finally found it.”

So the Saudis were already pissed about this and then came the hacking incident and related Iran/Hezbollah-friendly comments described in detail here earlier.

How’s that for convoluted?

 

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