Released captives are seen during a prisoner swap between Assad regime forces and Syrian opposition groups within the scope of Astana deal, in the regime-controlled town of Al-Bab, Syria, last week. (Ali Imran/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Prisoner Swap Between Syrian Government & Rebel Groups Unlikely To Forge Lasting Peace

‘The only way to rebuild Syria successfully and cohesively is to change its entire political system’

Sunni rebel groups and the Syrian government reached an agreement last week to swap 10 prisoners that each side had been holding during the country’s devastating seven-year-long civil war, according to the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, a body that supports peace negotiations between the opposing sides.

Sergey Solomatin, head of the center, affirmed that the rebels released 10 Syrian citizens in the exchange, which took place in the northeast city of Tadef on Saturday. In return the Syrian government “liberated 10 gunmen from the armed opposition units,” Solomatin said, adding that representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry monitored the deal.

“This is an obvious Russian attempt to reorganize Syria’s internal politics,” Qasem Qaseer, a Lebanese political analyst, told The Media Line. Turkey, France and Iran, he added, “are also players in overseeing the ‘after-agreement’ phase between the Syrian government and opposition groups.”

The current effort is focused on creating a safe environment to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, an important aspect of the rebuilding operation, Qaseer explained. “This is a huge effort as the society and economy have been completely destroyed; the Syrian government isn’t enough to spark that process.”

The government needs help from other countries and international bodies to manage this transition, as well as expertise on devising political and social solutions, he explained. “Today’s efforts are partial and limited; the situation requires much more than that.”

At the same time, Qaseer continued, “opposition groups are divided into several blocks, each with a different agenda, sometimes a foreign one.” This fragmentation of interests is not helping international players forge a lasting agreement, he explained.

“For instance, the Kurds are supported by the United States and have their own projects. It’s not clear what they really want and what the U.S. has to say about it, complicating matters further.” On the other hand, opposition groups boast Turkey’s support, but Ankara simply wants to calm tensions, he added.

According to a recent press release from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Ankara considered the exchange “an important step in increasing confidence between the Syrian parties.”

Mohammed al-Musfir, a professor of Political Science at Qatar University, stressed to The Media Line that achieving reconciliation between the sides will be extremely difficult, as will be rebuilding Syria.

“The Syrian regime believes it achieved a big victory against the opposition, although Iran and Russia had a big hand in it. The latter is aiming to become the major partner with the Syrian regime, while the Islamic Republic works on the ground every day for the same thing,” al-Musfir said.

Any Gulf state that wants to help rebuild Syria would not approve of the Syrian, Russian and Iranian positions, he concluded. “The only way to rebuild Syria successfully and cohesively is to change its entire political system. Otherwise, all efforts to rebuild Syria and its political arena will unlikely bear fruit.”

The prisoner exchange comes on the backdrop of the so-called “Astana deal,” named after the Kazakh capital, where representatives of the Syrian government and some armed opposition groups have been meeting to hash out a lasting ceasefire agreement.

As guarantors of the deal, Russia, Turkey and Iran have been working with the parties to create four “de-escalation zones” in opposition-held areas of the country, in an attempt to give residents respite from war and begin the rebuilding phase.

Since breaking out in 2011, Syria’s civil war pitting pro-regime forces, including the regime’s army, Russian air power, and Iranian-backed groups like Hizbullah, against anti-regime rebel fighters has left more than 350,000 people dead – though some believe the number could be closer to 500,000 – and displaced millions.

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