Syrian government, opposition swap 36 more prisoners

A new prisoner swap between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Syrian government took place at al-Eiss crossing, while the Syrian opposition is looking for more exchanges in the future.

al-monitor Islamist rebels from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham celebrate for their families and relatives who are released from government prisons, as they arrive to al-Eis area in southern Aleppo, Syria, July 19, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Jun 3, 2019

ALEPPO, Syria — A new prisoner swap deal between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian government was conducted May 17 at al-Eis crossing separating the Syrian opposition areas from those held by the government in the southern countryside of Aleppo.

In the presence of representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent, the regime forces exchanged 27 prisoners for nine HTS detainees.

“The regime released 22 women and five men hailing from different Syrian governorates — mainly from Homs, and some from Hama, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Latakia and Damascus. They were arrested over the past years by Syrian government security forces on charges of supporting or belonging to the Syrian opposition,” a source from the HTS prisoners affairs office told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

“Meanwhile, HTS released two women and seven men, who are members of the regime forces and were captured years ago in the city of Aleppo during the fighting. Negotiations through intermediaries between officials of the HTS prisoners affairs office and Syrian forces took place for about a month prior to the deal. Eventually we were able to seal the deal despite the regime’s attempts to decide on the names of the detainees to be released,” the source said.

He added, “Negotiations with the Syrian regime are still ongoing through intermediaries for more exchanges. Women held in the regime prisons are a top priority for us in these deals."

He explained that the “prisoners affairs office was established in 2017 and continues to receive names of detainees in the regime’s prisons from their families and friends, in the hope that they would be released in future swap deals in exchange for regime soldiers captured in combat.”

On March 26, another swap deal was carried out between the two sides, whereby the Syrian government released three detainees — two men and a woman — in exchange for HTS revealing the location where the bodies of Syrian soldiers, who were killed in the 2015 battles near Abu al-Duhur military air base in eastern Idlib, were buried.

This swap took place also at al-Eis crossing in the presence of representatives of the Red Crescent and the Syria Civil Defense. One of the two released men is from Daraya, while the other man and the woman are from Aleppo.

Similarly, on April 25, 2018, HTS swapped prisoners with the Syrian regime under the mediation of the Syrian Red Crescent at al-Eis crossing. The exchange deal included the release of three HTS members held captive by the regime in return for the release of two members from the Lebanese Hezbollah — Mohammad Abdullah Sket and Basel Jumaa Fawaz — from the cities of Nabel and Zahra. The two men were captured during the battles against the Syrian forces in Aleppo.

Hisham Khazami, a local Syrian dignitary from Idlib countryside, has been one of the most prominent mediators in the prisoner swaps between HTS and the Syrian government in previous years. He is also credited with the prisoner exchange deals between the Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

On his Facebook page, Khazami shares video footage of the prisoner swaps between the Syrian government, HTS or FSA factions, where he says that he is officially charged by the Syrian government and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a mediator between the two sides.

Abdel Fattah al-Hussein, a media activist, told Al-Monitor, “HTS has been recently in charge of most of the prisoner exchange deals with the regime in Idlib governorate. HTS controls now the crossings, including al-Eis and Murak crossings. The FSA is no longer in charge of any swap deal. HTS also has the majority of Syrian forces prisoners captured during battles.”

HTS holds many Syrian officers captive and is planning to hand them over to the Syrian government in exchange for HTS members or civilians.

On May 22, HTS captured Col. Abdel Karim Suleiman in the battles of Kafarnabouda in the northern Hama countryside.

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