A Qatari plane sent to collect 26 kidnapped members of Doha’s ruling family has remained in Baghdad for a fourth day, as a regional deal that ties their release to the evacuation of four besieged Syrian towns resumed earlier this week.
The jet, which Iraqi officials suspect was carrying millions of dollars, arrived on Saturday ahead of the group’s expected release, which was later stalled by the bombing the same day of a convoy carrying residents of two Shia towns in northern Syria, Fua and Kefraya, whose fate had been central to the plan.
The suicide attack killed 126 people and wounded nearly 300 more in one of the most lethal strikes of the Syrian war, further complicating 16 months of negotiations that were underwritten by Iran and Qatar and involved four of the region’s most powerful militias.
Qatari officials arrived in the Iraqi capital on Saturday with large bags they refused to allow to be searched. Senior Iraqi officials said they believed the bags to be carrying millions of dollars in ransom money, to be paid to the Iraqi militia holding the royals, Keta’eb Hezbollah, and two Syrian groups who had agreed to secure the Shia leg of the swap, the al-Qaida inspired Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham.
Two Sunni towns near Damascus, Madaya and Zabadani , are also being evacuated to rebel-held areas in a choreographed swap that Syrian opposition leaders say has clear implications for the country’s demography. Dozens of residents were bused out of all four towns on Monday as the deal resumed.
As revealed by the Guardian on Saturday, the plan has immersed some of the Middle East’s most prominent players, exposing their support for powerful militias, and the influence that those same proxies wield over weak central governments in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
The Syrian regime has played no role in the negotiations, and the Baghdad authorities have repeatedly said they did not known who was holding the Qataris. As their release has neared, it has shown no interest in confronting the hostage takers.
Iran had been the main driver of the earliest phase of a plan to evacuate up to 50,000 Shias from Fua and Kefraya, and its officials had negotiated directly with Ahrar al-Sham leaders. Iranian-backed militias have been central to the defence of the two Shia villages, which had been besieged by Islamist groups and jihadis for much of the past four years.
The talks had stalled, however, until the fate of the Qatari royals – many of them from the al-Thani tribe of which the emir’s family is part – were brought into negotiations in November. They were among a hunting party that was captured in southern Iraq by a convoy of up to 100 men in December 2015, and their whereabouts remained unknown until last November.
Since then, the so-called four-towns deal has been given renewed impetus. Hezbollah from Lebanon, which is among the Syrian regime’s most powerful backers, and Ahrar al-Sham signed a memorandum earlier this month that was guaranteed by Qatar. At the same time, the Iraqi militia holding the royals moved their captives to Baghdad in preparation for one of the most sensitive – and politically loaded – hostage swaps in the region’s recent history.
Sources close to the negotiations say the suicide attack delayed the process, but did not derail it altogether. A senior Iraqi official familiar with discussions said the hostages were likely to be held until all those who want to leave Fua and Kefraya have been able to do so. Their release had previously been expected to be staggered as the plan progressed.
As many as 30 fighters from Ahrar al-Saham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham were killed in Saturday’s suicide blast. Preliminary investigations suggest the car carrying the bomb had been driven from nearby opposition-held villages. One theory advanced in opposition circles is that the attack was carried out by a faction that had missed out on the promise of payment.
A resident of Fua said his family members were likely to be taken to a suburb of Homs in the coming days, but that their ultimate destination was not yet clear. Some residents said they expected to end up closer to Madaya and Zabadani, or in the western suburbs of Damascus.