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.
On Wednesday, 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 reporters in Beirut by telephone it was worked out through Turkish and Qatari mediation with Iran lobbying ally Assad.
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, aged in their 20s and 30s, along with military identification cards taken from them.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi admitted on August 8 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.
Separate to the abduction, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards acknowledged on September 16 that members of its Quds Force, an elite external operations unit, were sent to Syria.
Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari said the Quds deployment was there only to “counsel” Syrian forces fighting insurgents, not for combat.
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, thousands of Syrian refugees in Syria’s neighbours Jordan and Lebanon were suffered extreme cold and flooding caused by heavy rain.
In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which hosts some 62,000 Syrians, downpours in recent days have destroyed hundreds of tents, further stoking anger among the displaced over poor conditions.
Inside Syria, at least 83 people were killed on Tuesday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its reporting.