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The prisoner exchange and issues of detention and transparency

Earlier this month, news of a large prisoner exchange between the Syrian government and rebels sparked much speculation about the growing leverage of the opposition and the influence of Iran over Assad. But behind the political and diplomatic analyses loom important questions about the plight of Syrians caught up in a chaotic struggle and the nature of military conduct on both sides.

The prisoner swap took place on January 9th between the Syrian government and anti-regime rebels. During the exchange, mediated in part by the Turkish NGO IHH, Assad’s government set free over 2,100 prisoners in exchange for 48 Iranians being held by opposition forces. The Syrians were said to be kept in poor conditions, with at least two dying shortly after the exchange. The Iranians were seen in comparatively good health upon their release, as shown in pictures taken in front of the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus. The Syrian government did not comment on the swap and the Iranians involved, who some believe were members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, many wondered why Assad, who hasn’t negotiated prisoner swaps for his own captured soldiers, agreed to swap prisoners for Iranians.

To be sure, the freeing of 2,000 Syrians from Assad’s prisons is no small feat. But one wonders, how many more prisoners is the government holding? While it’s impossible to know for sure, the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria estimates that since the uprising began the government has detained over 34,000 people— over 1,000 of whom are women and children. Who are these prisoners being held by the government? For the most part, they are anyone suspected of challenging Assad, either by speaking out as a dissident, or by providing humanitarian support to the opposition. Among the detainees, according to Human Rights Watch, are “[p]eaceful activists, human rights defenders, aid workers, lawyers, doctors, writers, and journalists.”

The swap also raises the question: Why hasn’t there been a total prisoner swap? While this was the largest swap during the conflict, could both or either side have freed more of its prisoners while getting something in return? There is no news indicating whether or not such a proposal has been made, either by the regime or by opposition forces. If a complete exchange seems too politically expensive, some sort of more comprehensive swap would no doubt go a long way to ease the suffering of those languishing in detention and the grief of their loved ones.

Just as the fates of those detained by the regime remain unclear, similarly little is known about prisoners held by opposition forces. Notably, the opposition did not free any of the Syrian regime’s soldiers in the exchange, only Iranians. While regime soldiers may not elicit much sympathy from the opposition, their treatment can serve as an important way for the rebels to differentiate themselves from Assad. Will there be trials? What kind of punishment will they face? When a new day dawns for Syria, it will be up to Syrians to decide how deep that sunlight will penetrate. Will the prisons remain a shadowy darkness, untouched by the light of transparency and accountability? Answers to such questions cannot be known now, but the asking cannot be avoided.

Looking past the political calculus of the prisoner exchange brings into focus its very human relevance for Syrians. The swap raises legal and accountability issues including the conditions of detainees, procedures around arrests, and the transparency of authorities. While such concerns may appear merely secondary to some in the heat of conflict, they are issues of life or death and freedom or captivity for many Syrians today for whom it is never too early to demand justice. The events remind us that the clouds of war and conflict cannot be allowed to obscure fundamental issues of justice and dignity.