The three-way prisoner exchange of thousands of Syrian, Turkish and Iranian prisoners Wednesday, Jan. 9, in Damascus and four other Syrian cities marked a turning-point in the 22-month old Syrian conflict which has cost upward of 60,000 lives. This was the first deal the Assad regime and the rebels have agreed and carried through since March 2011. It was made possible by Bashar Assad’s confidence, in the face of Western predictions of his imminent downfall, that his chances of survival had improved against the forces determined to oust him, while Syrian rebel leaders grasped they had better deal with the hated Syrian ruler for any hope of preserving any of their war gains.
Altogether, the Assad regime released Syrian 2,130 civilians, including 73 women and a number of foreigners, some of them Turks, and obtained the release of 48 Iranians held for six months by the rebel Free Syrian Army. The FSA claimed they were Revolutionary Guards officers and men, while Tehran insisted they were pilgrims visiting holy sites in Syria.
The prisoner exchange was organized by teams of the Turkish Muslim extremist IHH-Humanitarian Relief Foundation.
debkafile's military and intelligence sources report, that the prisoner swap marked a moment in the ongoing transition of the Syrian crisis from an international issue with a say for the United States, Europe and some Persian Gulf emirates, into a domestic contest, in which regional mediators – in this case Qatar and Turkey – had a role to play. For now, the Obama administration and NATO appear to have moved back from the military arena and left a clear field to the management of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara.
Four steps marked this transition from the third week of December 2012:
1. On December 22, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the Syrian government had “consolidated its chemical weapons in one or two locations amid a rebel onslaught and they are under control for the time being.” Lavrov did not say who was in control of the weapons and why he thought they were out of danger of falling into rebel hands.
2. The day before this announcement, US naval and air forces, piling up in waters opposite Syria from the third week of November, were abruptly ordered to pull back, a sign that the Obama administration had washed its hands of any military intervention in Syria without publicly stating this.
3. In the first week of January, 2013, the Syrian army finally repulsed a major Syrian rebel assault on Assad’s largest chemical weapons depot at the Al Safira military complex near Aleppo.
In this engagement, too, the insurgents demonstrated they were capable only of limited, local gains, but not up to capturing major targets such as major cities and military sites. They were therefore not equal to vanquishing the army still loyal to Bashar Assad.
4. The place of the departed US fleet in the eastern Mediterranean was gradually filled by a large influx of Russian naval and marine forces. And so, when the Syrian ruler rose to deliver a speech at the Damascus opera house Sunday, Jan. 6, he knew he could afford to flout the calls for him to step down and declare he no longer takes dictation from the West. He knew that moored off the Syrian coast were up to 20 Russian warships carrying more than 2,000 Russian marines – on top of unwavering Iranian support for his regime.
The prisoner swap of Wednesday may usher in a lull in the fighting, some of debkafile's military and intelligence sources believe – especially in consideration of the exceptionally harsh winter conditions besetting the region. During that time, the two warring sides may try and feel their way toward more local or limited understandings as well as replenishing their military and diplomatic resources – either for a final winning throw or to improve their bargaining positions in future negotiations which were kicked off by the prisoner swap.
For now, Assad is evidently here to stay. To remove him, the rebels will have to reach him with an assassin’s bullet.