THE prisoner swap arranged by Iran, Turkey and Qatar shows the leverage they have with the two sides now draining each other’s blood in Syria. Could the three countries press their advantage further and bring the 22-month-old civil war to an end? On Wednesday, Syrian rebels freed 48 Iranians they had taken prisoner after the regime agreed to release more than 2,000 dissidents. The Iranians had been taken prisoner in August, and Tehran denied the charge that they belonged to the Revolutionary Guards and said they were pilgrims. Things had reached a stage where the rebel forces had threatened to kill their Iranian prisoners unless the Syrian government stopped military operations. Ironically, the prisoner exchange came in the wake of President Bashar al-Assad’s speech which the rebels thought virtually slammed the door on a negotiated settlement. International reaction to the Assad speech on Sunday was equally harsh, with the US and the European Union calling for the president’s exit.
There have been prisoner swaps in the past also. But the number of captives was small and the deals were arranged by mediators within Syria. This is, however, for the first time that two foreign NGOs —Turkish and Qatari — helped by their governments have played a major part in effecting an exchange on such a large scale by getting Iranian support. The success in arranging this laudable humanitarian deal shows the leverage which Turkey and Qatar have not only with the Syrian opposition but also with Tehran. The Syrian conflict has so far led to 60,000 deaths, and neither side seems willing to compromise. It is time the three regional countries which effected the exchange realise they can come to the rescue of the Syrian people if they shun partiality and concentrate their efforts on a negotiated settlement.