In Depth

Four truths about the Syrian regime – as exposed by nuns

For a start, we now know Bashar Assad’s regime does detain children. But there’s more…

ALTHOUGH ostensibly a victory for the Syrian regime, the release of 13 kidnapped Greek Orthodox nuns and their three helpers earlier this week has turned out instead to be a bit of a PR disaster. 

The 16 women were taken from the Mar Takla monastery on 3 December after Syrian rebel forces  - including al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters - stormed the historic Christian town of Maaloula, which lies about 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus.

They were released last Sunday following months of negotiations. But instead of being a triumphal moment for the Syrian government, the incident has shown up a number of things they would much rather we didn’t talk about.

1. The regime is detaining children and/or families.During peace talks in Geneva earlier this year, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said: “I categorically deny there are any children being detained."

But a video showing the nuns being transferred at an informal, rebel-controlled border crossing into Lebanon, clearly features a civilian woman and three children being handed over in return and getting into a car with a masked militant, apparently all part of a family.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that children were part of the swap. "A woman and her four children who had been in jail were freed first and reached Yabrud," Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP

2. The regime’s narrative about the risk to Christians is false.Originally painted as an example of the merciless violence that opposition groups would visit on Syria's Christian community - which makes up about 10 per cent of the population - the kidnapping of the nuns has actually proved to be a coup for the Nusra Front.

Flying in the face of the official government line that designates such groups as "terrorists", the nuns all said the hardline al-Qaeda-linked Front did not mistreat them at all - a very public blow for one of the regime’s most persuasive arguments as to why it should remain in power.

In the video of the handover at the rebel-controlled crossing, one nun is even carried in the arms of a masked militant.

“They were very kind and sweet,” one nun told reporters. "The Front was good to us," added Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, head of the monastery. “I have to be truthful … the Front treated us very well.

3. The regime is still talking to rebel-bankroller Qatar.Syria has vehemently denied that its newfound enemy Qatar, which has emerged as a major rebel sponsor in the last few years, had anything to do with the nuns’ release, despite clear signs that the Gulf state was instrumental in the arrangement.

Further, it seems likely that Qatari intelligence chief Saadeh al-Kbeisi actually met with the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau in Damascus last weekend to close the deal.

If true, it constitutes a landmark meeting between two countries whose relations have rapidly deteriorated since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and will come as a surprise to Syrians who are used to seeing Qatar rubbished in pro-government media.

Even the nuns seem to have been in on Qatar’s involvement, with one of them thanking Syrian President Bashar Assad for being in contact with Qatar’s emir when she spoke to reporters.

4. Prisoner exchanges are possible, but only for certain people.Due either to its inability - or more likely, its unwillingness - to negotiate with various rebel groups, the regime so far appears to have concentrated on a very small number of kidnap cases.

As a result, the deal to free the nuns led to outrage online at the government’s apparent lack of concern about ordinary, less headline-grabbing Syrian civilians being held by rebels, with many pointing to the lack of action over a number of citizens kidnapped from the regime’s heartland, Latakia.

The nuns join the ranks of 48 Iranian nationals whom rebels swapped for hundreds of regime prisoners over a year ago, and nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims who were released in exchange for several dozen female detainees in October.

Venetia Rainey tweets at @venetiarainey

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