Damascus: The first major prisoner swap in Syria’s conflict took place on Wednesday with rebels freeing 48 Iranians in exchange for more than 2,000 regime detainees in a drawn-out deal with Damascus reportedly brokered by Turkey, Qatar and Iran.
The unprecedented exchange came to light ahead of trilateral talks in Geneva on Friday between Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy tasked with trying to quell Syria’s 21 months of violence, and US and Russian officials.
But the developments offered no immediate respite from the killing.
Four children from the same family were among as many as 10 civilians killed in a pre-dawn air strike near the central city of Homs, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The prisoner swap involved 48 Iranian men abducted by rebels in Damascus in early August and 2,130 prisoners of Syrian and other nationalities held in various cities by regime forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, according to several sources.
The Turkish charity the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) said the exchange was “the result of months of civil diplomacy carried out by our organisation.”
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, Ahmed al-Khatib, confirmed the deal, telling AFP in Beirut by telephone it was worked out through Turkish and Qatari mediation with Iran lobbying ally Assad.
The freed Iranians arrived at a Damascus hotel ahead of a press conference, an AFP correspondent said.
Iranian television hailed the freeing of the 48 Iranian “pilgrims”, maintaining Tehran’s description of them as innocent visitors to Syria snatched as they visited a Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.
But the rebels who had held the Iranians described some of them as Revolutionary Guards members in Syria on a “reconnaissance” mission in support of Assad’s forces.
On August 5, the group posted a video showing the Iranian men, along with military identification cards taken from them.
Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi admitted on 8 August there were Revolutionary Guards in the group, but claimed they were “retired” and denying suspicions they were on active military service in Syria.
Iran has insisted it provides only economic and humanitarian aid to Syria’s regime, which it sees as part of a regional “resistance” to Israel.
But the United States and Western allies believe Iran is also providing weapons, snooping technology and military personnel skilled in hunting down and suppressing opposition members.
The potential for the Syrian conflict to draw in other countries and paramilitary groups in the region is one of the principal worries of world powers.
On Friday, Russia, which has protected Assad from international action in the UN Security Council, is to hold a second round of consultations on the spiralling crisis with the United States, Moscow said on Wednesday.
Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency the meeting would comprise himself, US undersecretary of state William Burns and Brahimi and would take place in Geneva.
Meanwhile, a core Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, was calling on the umbrella opposition Syrian National Coalition recognised by the West as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people to form an interim government.
A Council document obtained by AFP proposed the temporary administration be set up to run “liberated territories”, and to push for the removal of Assad and the dissolution of all regime security forces except the police.
The text notably told the Coalition to “dismiss the army’s top commanders and dissolve both the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard.” The feared Fourth Division is led by Assad’s brother Maher, and is charged with security in Damascus.
Large swathes of northwestern and eastern Syria are out of regime control. Areas in the north serve both as rebel rear bases and as locations for civil society groups transferring aid from neighbouring Turkey to work from.
The plan emerged four days after Assad offered, in a rare speech, a dialogue with the opposition to end the conflict — but only with elements he deemed acceptable, not rebel-affiliated groups he termed “killers” and “terrorists” led by foreigners.
The National Coalition has dismissed Assad’s offer, sticking to its pre-condition that the president step down before any talks are considered.