Qatar pays Syrian rebels £40m ransom to free nuns - or did it? It depends what rumours you believe

Oh, to be a Syrian conspiracy theorist in these days of civil war


They must be the most expensive nuns in the world – if, that is, a poisonous press and the ferocious rumours of civil war are anything to go by.

Qatar, according to the Lebanese, paid Bashar al-Assad’s enemies £40m for the nuns’ freedom. The figure goes up to £43m in Syria. Or, if you listen to the 13 Greek Orthodox nuns freed by the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra after three months’ imprisonment, absolutely nothing at all was paid.

No one gets freed in Syria without a price. For Syria’s security services, in this case, the price was the release of 152 female prisoners, including relatives of rebel fighters. And for the nuns, closeted now in a church orphanage in central Damascus, the cost is rising.

“We are safe now in this place,” Sister Irene – one of the unlucky 13 – said in the hallway of the St Gregorius Orthodox Society Orphanage in the al-Qassa Christian district of central Damascus. “I am happy here.”

But when I asked the diminutive lady in her black gown and cape to ask her superior, Mother Plagia Sayyaf, to talk about their experiences, she returned with a rather unsaintly message. Mother Plagia had been profoundly hurt by an interview broadcast by the pro-regime Al-Dounia television channel, she said. “She swore in front of God that she will never talk to the press again.”

Nonetheless, having taken a peek at the rather well-appointed – if now damaged – villa in which the nuns and their three maids were held in Yabroud until their release a week ago, a few questions have to be asked about this extraordinary episode. The nuns and their assistants, as the Christian community was appalled to announce last December, had been kidnapped from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula – where, as every guidebook tells you, Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken – and taken to the nearby town of Yabroud which had been under Islamist control for more than two years. Some said they were dead, but a videotape later showed the nuns being well treated, one of them laughing with her captors. Then came their release.

Lebanese security services were involved – they said no ransom was paid by them – but when the nuns emerged from captivity, to the astonishment of all, they thanked their kidnappers for looking after them so well, personally expressed appreciation for one of the Islamist leaders, thanked Qatar – the supposed money-men – and then put in a good word for Bashar al-Assad.

Much more serious was the growing number of reports in Damascus that in some infernal deal, they had been freed not only with an awful lot of Qatari cash, but with the help of Lebanese Christian parties opposed to Assad. The arrangement was said to be all too simple: as Syrian forces and Hezbollah members prepared to storm the town of Yabroud two weeks ago, the nuns were freed in return for the Syrian government allowing the hundreds of Islamist fighters a safe corridor to flee the town to the neighbouring village of Rankous.

Perish the thought, the regime says. But if true, this would account for the fact that I saw no corpses in Yabroud when the army eventually captured the old Ottoman – and Roman – town this week. Syrian officers confirmed that the next battle would be for Rankous, which Jabhat al-Nusra is still in possession of. Wasn’t the regime, its own supporters have been asking, supposed to be destroying the foreign Islamist groups rather than freeing a group of nuns – when thousands of Syrian women have been abducted and hundreds raped? It’s one thing to pray for the nuns’ safety – and most Christians in Syria are undoubtedly on Assad’s side – but to have them quietly handed over by their captors when the mosaics and paintings of the Church of Our Lady, 200 yards away from their place of captivity, had been vandalised seemed to be a bit much.

Mother Plagia was Lebanese, a growing congress of angry Syrians said (others say she is, in fact, Syrian) and was close to members of the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea, which loathes the Assad regime. And Qatar, whom the nuns profusely thanked for their liberty, is funding Assad’s ruthless Islamist enemies. In other words, what’s going on? Why didn’t the nuns also thank the Syrian army for arranging their liberation – if that is what happened – rather thanking Jabhat al-Nusra?

There are, of course, rather a lot of prisoner-swaps in Syria just now – that’s what happens in civil wars – and private ceasefires and “reconciliation” committees, and Lebanon appears to have become ever more involved, perhaps because it still wishes to keep the Syrian war away from its frontiers. The word in Damascus is that the negotiations were led “from beginning to end” by the head of the Lebanese internal security forces, General Abbas Ibrahim, who in the past has courageously talked to al-Qa’ida representatives in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein Helweh, outside Sidon in southern Lebanon.

So is Qatar, which has called for the overthrow of Assad dozens of times, now trying to spite its old adversary Saudi Arabia – also funding the Islamists in Syria – by very quietly opening a gentle dialogue with the Assad regime after years of rage and fury at Damascus? Certainly, Saudi Arabia has been grimly silent. Oh, to be a Syrian conspiracy theorist in these days of war. Or to be a nun.

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