Forty-eight Iranians who were captured in Damascus in August by Syrian opposition groups were released on Wednesday under a swap deal mediated by Qatar, Iran and a Turkish charity group, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH).
In exchange for the 48 Iranians, the Syrian regime released 2,130 people, including Turkish nationals.
Initially, the Syrian regime began to free the prisoners held in Damascus and later the 48 Iranians were handed over to İHH members by the opposition.
İHH Chairman Bülent Yıldırım, who is overseeing the exchange in Damascus, told Today's Zaman in a phone interview that the prisoner swap had already begun, adding that among the 2,130 civilians held captive by the Syrian regime are at least four Turkish nationals, two of whom were released on Wednesday.
“The deal has been brokered and now the releases continue. The swap of prisoners began in several locations. The 48 Iranians were released in Damascus's Duma region. İHH official İzzet Şahin accompanied the Iranians, who were transferred to Damascus by bus. Some 2,130 people, including women and children, were released on Wednesday,” said Yıldırım.
Yıldırım stated that that two of the four Turkish nationals have already been freed under the deal and the other two will be released on Thursday due to security concerns. “The swap process will continue into Thursday only for these two Turkish nationals. The two Turkish nationals will be taken to Turkey on Thursday but the other two Turkish nationals, who have lived in Syria for many years, will decide whether to come or not,” said Yıldırım.
Speaking during a press conference in Niger, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the swap came as a result of efforts by Qatar and a Turkish nongovernmental organization, without openly naming the İHH. “This [initiative] should be appreciated,” he said. “There are very many people in Syrian jails. Our hope is that they will also be freed.”
Erdoğan confirmed that four Turks as well as a few Palestinians were among those freed. He said the Turkish authorities were in contact with the Syrian opposition groups and that they had indicated readiness to release their hostages, although it had not been clear how the Syrian government would react.
A senior Turkish official who spoke to Today's Zaman on the condition of anonymity earlier in the day said that the Turkish Foreign Ministry was not involved in the mediation process, although the ministry has been involved in previous efforts to ensure the safety of Turkish citizens from the very beginning of the crisis in Syria. “We are following and supporting the process led by İHH closely," said the official.
Late on Wednesday, the state-run Anatolia news agency quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, to thank him for Ankara's help in securing the release of the kidnapped Iranians.
Regarding the 48 Iranians, Yıldırım stated that Iranian Embassy in Syria will decide what will happen to them. “We just mediated their release,” said Yıldırım.
The Syrian opposition argued that the 48 Iranians were the members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and threatened to kill them. Tehran, one of the Syrian regime's closest allies, denied this, saying they were Shiite Muslim pilgrims visiting a shrine in Syria.
Serkan Nergis, the press consultant for the İHH, told Today's Zaman that the release of the captives was being conducted at several buildings, including the Syrian Interior Ministry, with Syrian officials and Syrian military officers.
Regarding the four Turkish nationals, Nergis stated that two of them were living in Syria but that the İHH did not have any information regarding the reason for the presence of the two other Turkish nationals in Syria. “We don't know whether these two people were in Syria for business or entered Syria during the clashes,” said Nergis.
Nergis stated that the Turkish Foreign Ministry was not involved in the latest mediation process, adding that the process was a nongovernmental initiative on the part of the İHH. “From Turkey, the İHH is managing the process. Qatar and Iran are helping us in the process," said Nergis.
Regarding the fate of Palestinian journalist Bashar al-Qaddumi, who went missing in Syria on Aug. 21, 2012, and is believed to be held by Syrian forces, Yıldırım stated that the İHH has not been able to obtain any clear information on Qaddumi as of yet but was continuing its efforts.
“The İHH calls on all Syrians and the world to get in touch with us if they have any information on Qaddumi," Yıldırım was quoted as saying by Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency on Wednesday.
Along with Qaddumi, journalist Cüneyt Ünal was also taken hostage. But Ünal was handed over to a delegation of Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) in Syria on Nov. 17, 2012, after being held captive for 90 days.
Recently, two Turkish nationals, İdris Çanakçı and Ekrem Ciğerli, who were reportedly jailed in Syria for months, arrived in İstanbul via Tehran on Dec. 21, after they were released following the mediation efforts of the İHH.
The İHH came to prominence in May 2010 when Israeli marines stormed its Mavi Marmara aid ship to enforce a naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip and killed eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American in clashes with activists on board.
The İHH has also played a role in the previous release of many Turkish nationals, including journalists Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun, who were held captive in Syria, as well as 28 Iranian nationals and seven Syrians who were kept in Syrian prisons.