Lebanese security chief negotiates release of Canadian held in Syria

Kristian Lee Baxter was arrested soon after entering Syria as a tourist in December 2018

Kristian Lee Baxter (L), a Canadian formerly held captive by the Syrian government, reacts alongside Canada's ambassador to Lebanon Emanuelle Lamoureux (R) during a press conference following his release after an eight-month captivity, in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 9, 2019. The British Columbia native appeared at a televised press conference in Lebanon's capital Beirut after his release mediated by the Lebanese authorities. Canadian media reported in early January that there had been no signs of Baxter, then 44, since December 1, 2018. / AFP / Mohammd AL-SAHILI
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Lebanon’s security chief Abbas Ibrahim announced on Friday the release of Kristian Lee Baxter, a Canadian tourist who had been held in Syria since December 2018.

During a press conference, Maj Gen Ibrahim, who heads General Security, said that Mr Baxter had been detained because of “reasons related to violating the Syrian laws”.

“I thought that I would be there forever,” said Mr Baxter, 44, breaking down in tears during the press conference.

Maj Gen Ibrahim said Canada had asked Lebanon to intervene to negotiate Mr Baxter’s release. He thanked “the Syrian state for answering our calls that led to the release of an American hostage before and a Canadian hostage today”.

Canadian citizen, Kristian Lee Baxter, who was being held in Syria, walks next to Major General Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon's internal security chief, after being released, in Beirut, Lebanon August 9, 2019. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

Mr Baxter’s mother, Andrea Leclair, told The Canadian Press in January that her son had been detained early December, a few days after arriving for a holiday in Syria.

The Canadian government has warned its citizens against travelling to the war-torn country since 2011.

Canadian authorities reportedly told Mr Baxter’s mother that they could not help him since Canada shut its embassy in Damascus in 2012 and severed its diplomatic relations with Syria, but then raised the possibility of negotiating his release through the Romanian embassy.

A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, the equivalent of a foreign affairs ministry, told The National in an email that the release of Mr Baxter from Syria was a relief, but would not disclose more information about his detention.

“We would also like to express our appreciation to the Government of Lebanon for its assistance,” he added.

According to Mrs Leclair, her son, whom she described as an “adventurer”, stopped communicating with her after December 1. At the time, he was visiting a Syrian village near the Lebanese border at the invitation of his girlfriend’s brother-in-law, who currently lives in the United States.

Upon arrival in Beirut, his luggage was delayed, but he decided to hire a driver to go to his relative's village in Syria without waiting for his bags. The driver went back to Lebanon to collect them for him but never came back, said Mrs Leclair.

According to her, her son then found out that the driver had been detained at the Syrian border because a metal detector, a prohibited item, was found in his suitcase. Mrs Leclair said her son used metal detectors as a hobby and did not know it was illegal to bring them into Syria.

Mr Baxter returned once to the border to ask about the suitcase, but nothing happened. After a few days, on December 2, he returned a second time, and was not heard from again until his appearance in Beirut on Friday.

Maj Gen Ibrahim, a Shiite, successfully negotiated the release of the US citizen Sam Goodwin from detention in Syria last month, and also played a crucial role in mediating the freedom of Lebanese national and US permanent resident Nizar Zakka from an Iranian prison in June.

The Lebanese security chief is reputedly close to the Shiite party Amal, which is allied with Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Maj Gen Ibrahim is known to have excellent relations with both the US and with Syria, said Waddah Charara, a retired sociology professor at the Lebanese University. "He visits the US every year for at least two weeks" Mr Charara told The National. "His ability to be friends with everyone means that he can play the role of a go-between very different groups."