Sheikh Adnan Amama the new potential mediator says he needs Lebanon’s government approval Samya Kullab| The Daily Star/Dec. 04, 2014
BEIRUT: The head of the Union of Sunni Clans in the Bekaa Valley said his group was ready to take the lead on negotiations to free 26 servicemen held captive by the Nusra Front and ISIS, arguing that local mediation would lessen militant demands. Described by unofficial mediator Sheikh Adnan Amama of the Muslim Scholars Committee as “a man of excellent connections and influence,” and “on good terms with all sides of the hostage issue,” Sheikh Jasem Askar, rumored to be the new local mediator in the hostage case, said his union was up to the task but is missing one crucial prerequisite: the government’s blessing.
Having negotiated for the body of executed soldier Mohammad Hammieh and averted, albeit temporarily, the execution of captive Ali Bazzal, Askar told The Daily Star he believes the instatement of a local mediator could potentially reduce the number of prisoners being demanded by the Nusra Front in a swap deal.
“If the government needs us we are ready, we think we can do more than the Qatari mediator,” who sources say has been unable to make progress on the file for the past two weeks.
The union’s foray into the complex case of the Arsal hostages began on Sept. 25, when Askar, its representative, implored Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri, an unofficial mediator who remains the government’s principle conduit to the Nusra Front, to take him to Arsal’s outskirts so he could negotiate the return of executed captive Hammieh’s body.
The soldier had been killed by the militant group on Sept. 19.
Askar’s intervention to secure Hammieh’s body had been in the interest of quelling sectarian tensions brewing between Sunni and Shiite clans in the Bekaa Valley. These had been in response to the serviceman’s execution, when Hammieh’s family, Shiites based in Baalbek, kidnapped members of the Hujeiri family, Sunnis from Arsal.
“The [Sunni] clans have had good ties with the Shiite clans in the Bekaa Valley for over 50 years,” Askar said. “When Nusra executed Hammieh, we found it imperative to retrieve his body in order to avoid clashes between Arsal’s residents and the Hammieh family.”
The return of Hammieh’s corpse would convince the family to release their Arsali captives, Askar believed.
Both Sunni and Shiite clans have a rich history in Lebanon predating Ottoman rule.
Once nomadic tribes, the Sunni clans, a few of which Sheikh Jasem Askar purports to represent, ultimately settled in the Bekaa Valley, Akkar and Tripoli during the period of the French Mandate.
By 2009 Sunni clans typically favored the Future Movement during parliamentary elections. In certain areas clan membership, such as the Kabbanis of Akkar, wield enough influence through their sheer size and power to sway local electoral results.
However, the union, also known as Etihad, appears to harbor political ambitions of its own, though it only represents a third of Sunnis in Lebanon. Askar criticized Lebanon’s political factions, whom he said did not consider clans to be “on the political map,” for limiting the role clan elders can play in the public sphere.
“The union aspires to be part of the political equation, it’s our right to have deputies and representatives in the state,” said Askar, who is part of the Anaza clan, which has members in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.
“Clan membership extends outside the country, but the country is above all else,” he said.
Askar made multiple trips to Arsal with Hujeiri attempting to reclaim Hammieh’s body between Sept. 25-28. In that time Askar was dealing directly with Nusra commander Abu Malek al-Tali.
“He’s from Damascus, he knows how the clans work,” Askar said. “I told him, I haven’t come for a political purpose, and I don’t have money like Qatar.”
At first Abu Malek said he would return Hammieh’s corpse in exchange for 15 Islamist prisoners.
“After our talks he agreed to give us the body for nothing in return, after seeking approval from his superior [Nusra Emir] Abu Mohammad al-Joulani.”
“But they took their time because they didn’t want to make it seem that it was easy to get the body because of the negotiation,” Askar added.
Askar would return to the outskirts once again on Nov. 28, this time at the request of Arsal’s officials, to attempt to delay the execution of soldier Ali Bazzal, like Hammieh a Shiite from Baalbek, who the Nusra Front has threatened to execute on several occasions to provoke the government.
“Some security members even told us: ‘If you can help, do it,’” he said.
Along with Sheikh Hujeiri, who was communicating with Health Minister Wael Abu Faour by phone at the time, Askar convinced the Nusra Front to wait on their threat.
According to the sheikh, Bazzal’s death was averted because Abu Faour promised that the government would “take the negotiation more seriously” by releasing an official statement, which was done by midnight Friday.
But the Nusra Front renewed its threat this week after Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi told reporters Abu Faour did not speak for the Cabinet collectively, Askar said.
“We are negotiating, but only as a personal initiative,” the sheikh said, adding that the union would not venture to Qalamoun anymore without official approval.
“We told the government that if you want us to conduct direct negotiations, we don’t have a problem, but we need official designation and we need the government to determine its demands,” he said.
“Nusra is demanding a swap deal, but the number of prisoners can vary.” – Additional reporting by Edy Semaan