BEIRUT — Syrian opposition fighters on Wednesday released 48 Iranians captured last August in exchange for the freeing of at least 2,130 detainees held by President Bashar Assad’s government in the largest prisoner swap of the country’s civil war, officials said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, slammed the peace plan Assad unveiled this week as “sectarian” and “one-sided,” giving little hope a diplomatic solution to the country’s violence would come anytime soon.
The 48 Iranians were let go in Doma, a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, as the government began to move 2,130 prisoners, including women and children, to buses to free them, Iranian and Turkish state media reported. Among the Syrian government’s prisoners were Turkish nationals, according to Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency.
Syrian activists confirmed that the government had released hundreds of prisoners. The armed rebel group called the Al Bara Brigade, which had kidnapped the Iranians and threatened to kill them if there was not an exchange, celebrated the deal on its Facebook page, confirming the release of Syrian detainees from around the country.
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“Today, with the granting of success from Allah, the operation of the release of the prisoners in exchange for arrested Syrians was completed, thus removing the mask from this criminal regime,” the rebel group, a moderate Islamist militia operating in the Damascus countryside, said in a statement.
Iranian television showed video of the 48 released abductees grinning, flashing victory signs and receiving flowers from Shiite clerics at a hotel in Damascus.
Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told state television: “The release of the abducted Iranians is the result of long and patient work in cooperation with Syrian officials and the assistance of Turkish officials.” He said two Iranian engineers were still being held hostage in Syria.
A Turkish Islamic relief group supervised the exchange, reported Anadolu, which credited Turkey and Qatar with mediating the deal. There was no confirmation from the Syrian government.
Most of the freed Syrian detainees were thought to be civilians and activists. They hailed from around the country, according to the Al Bara Brigade, in what was likely meant as a suggestion of national solidarity in a war where fighting groups and their agendas are highly localized.
Iranian political analyst Hamid Reza Taraghi said the exchange did not augur a fresh start between Assad and the rebels, but rather that Syria had worked for the release of the hostages because Iran remains Assad’s chief backer in the Middle East.
“Syria as a strategic ally of Iran exchanged so many prisoners to make sure the abducted Iranians were freed,” Taraghi said. “The Iranian citizens were so important that Syria had to release such a huge number of them.”
Rebels captured the busload of Iranians last August outside Damascus and claimed they were part of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard force brought to Syria to help bolster Assad. Iran insisted they were pilgrims visiting Shiite holy sites.
The Turkish relief agency, IHH Humanitarian Aid Foundation, was involved in much smaller prison releases last year in Syria, including “many Turkish nationals … who were held captive in Syria as well as 28 Iranian nationals and 7 Syrians who were kept in prisons,” the Anadolu news agency said.
The exchange marked a rare break from the brutality of the nearly 22-month-old civil war that has seen Assad order airstrikes and shell cities as rebels carry out bombings and assassinations.
On Sunday, Assad delivered a rare speech denigrating the rebel groups as terrorists as he unveiled a peace plan that the United Nations and international community rejected as insincere. Assad described a complicated plan for a transition to national elections, making clear he was calling the shots in Syria and would not cede power.
Brahimi, speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, expressed his frustration at Assad’s refusal to agree to an internationally brokered plan for a transitional government involving the opposition and Assad supporters.
“What has been said this time is not really different and it is perhaps even more sectarian, more one-sided,” Brahimi said. “What you need is reaching out and recognizing that there is a problem, a very, very serious problem between Syrians, and that Syrians have got to talk to one another to solve it.”