The swap appeared to be the largest yet in the nearly two-year-old uprising, which the United Nations estimates has left more than 60,000 dead. The deal was brokered by the governments of Qatar and Turkey, and a Turkish humanitarian group that has helped in previous exchanges facilitated the prisoners’ release.
Critics of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the lopsided deal highlights how much he is influenced by Iran, one of the Syrian government’s last remaining allies. They noted that Assad did not insist on the release of any of the hundreds of Syrian soldiers who have been captured by the rebels, focusing instead on the Iranian prisoners.
“Assad proved he is an Iranian puppet because he agreed to release over 2,000 in return for 48 Iranians,” said Louay Moqdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesman. “He did not care about Syrian officers who are also detained with us.”
Moqdad said dozens of women and children were among the prisoners released by the government.
At a news conference in Damascus after the prisoners were freed, the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Sheibani, acknowledged the high price that the Syrian government had to pay to clinch the deal.
“Although the terms the kidnappers proposed were very tough, the efforts that Syria made in this matter ultimately led to the success of the talks and the freeing of the Iranian nationals,” he said, according to Fars News, a semiofficial news agency affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It remains unclear what the Iranians were doing in Syria when they were captured. The group was seized in August near Sayida Zainab Mosque, a Shiite Muslim shrine in southern Damascus frequented by pilgrims.
Rebel commanders involved in the capture said at the time that the Iranians were Revolutionary Guard personnel sent to help Assad in the fight against the opposition. But Iranian government officials maintained that the Iranians were pilgrims and had not entered Syria in any military capacity.
The Free Syrian Army unit involved in the seizure released a video that showed a handful of Revolutionary Guard identity cards that allegedly had been confiscated from the captives.
Shortly after the video was posted online, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told an Iranian news agency that the group included some retired members of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian army. But he insisted that the entire group was in Syria for a private visit.
At a briefing Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland asserted that the released prisoners were Revolutionary Guard members and that their presence in Syria was “just another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, technical capabilities to the Syrian regime.”
The Iranians were released in the Damascus suburb of Douma, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported. Footage aired by Iran’s Press TV showed them arriving at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus in white minivans, smiling as they hugged and kissed officials from the Iranian Embassy.
Despite rebel claims that some of the prisoners had been killed, an embassy official said they were all doing well, according to Fars News. “All 48 of the pilgrims are in good health and will soon return to Iran,” the official said.
The captives released by the Syrian government were bused to the Palace of Justice in central Damascus, where a judge was signing their release papers, Moqdad, the rebel spokesman, said. The captives were then expected to be brought to different security facilities around the city and released.
The prisoner release was not completed Wednesday and would resume Thursday, opposition activist Susan Ahmad said via Skype from Damascus.
Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.