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Prisoners’ exchange operations increase in northern Syria

The prisoners of the Syrian regime forces getting into the vehicle during the prisoners’ exchange process between the Syrian regime and the HTS – 16 May 2020 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

The prisoners of the Syrian regime forces getting into the vehicle during the prisoners’ exchange process between the Syrian regime and the HTS – 16 May 2020 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

The opposition factions controlling the north-western regions of Syria held three prisoners’ exchange operations with the Syrian regime forces during the last week.

These operations led to the release of opposition fighters who were captured in their battles with the Syrian regime forces since April 2019, in addition, to the release of women and children detained by the regime.

In return, the regime’s forces were handed over their military members and officers, as well as dead bodies of soldiers who were taken prisoners during the battles.

The prisoners’ swapping operations were held between the Syrian regime on one side and three opposition factions on the other side. The first operation involved “Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS),” which is controlling Idlib, while the second included the “National Front for Liberation (NFL)” affiliated to the Turkey-backed “Syrian National Army (SNA).”

As for the third swapping operation, it was held between the regime and the “Guardians of Religion Organization (GRO)” linked to “The Rouse the Believers Operations Room.”

What mechanism governs the swapping operations?

The recent prisoners’ exchange operations between the regime and the opposition factions were not the first nor the last of their kind. They were preceded by similar operations since the beginning of the military clashes between the two sides.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, The commander of the “al-Mu’tasim Division” of the SNA, “al-Farouk Abu Bakr” said that the swapping operations are run smoothly with the regime.

He added the operations are often implemented with the presence of the “Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC)” or the “International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).”

The commander who is responsible for coordinating the prisoners’ swapping deals with the regime on behalf of the SNA said that the factions have a previous agreement with the SARC before the implementation of the exchanges. Such agreement ensures a smooth and specified way of implementation so that the factions guarantee that there will be no violations or breaches that would lead to the agreement’s failure.

“Abu Bakr” denied any coordination between the SNA, HTS, and The Rouse the Believers Operations Room during the prisoners’ exchanges.

He said each side of these factions holds swapping deals without referring to the other parties, despite their coordination in the battles against the regime’s forces, especially after the regime’s military advancements since last mid-January.

Nonetheless, the regime’s military achievements were halted by the cease-fire agreement signed between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin On 5 March.

Moreover, news circulated that the faction executing the exchange operations received large sums of money amounting to about 10,000 USD from the detainees’ families, in return for an exchange operation with officers and elements of the regime’s forces. Nevertheless, “Abu Bakr” confirmed to Enab Baladi that he does not take any money in exchange for his work.

Obstacles and preferences among prisoners

“Abu Bakr” asserted to Enab Baladi that the swapping operations face obstacles during their implementation, mainly the regime’s procrastination and rejection of the prisoners’ exchanges altogether.

He clarified that the swapping deals are not possible unless the regime is pressured.

“Abu Bakr” explained to Enab Baladi how the process of pressuring the regime works. He said, at first, families of the regime’s forces’ prisoners are contacted by a representative of the factions. The latter tells them that the entity that captivated their family member is ready to negotiate and authorized him to communicate and manage the operation.

Then, the families of the prisoners start communicating with their “connections” to exert pressure on highly known officers in the regime’s forces. This process ensures reaching a specific understanding with the regime, followed by setting the time, the conditions of operations, and other details related to the swapping process.

“Abu Bakr” added the weight of the persons captivated by the factions in the opposition controlled-areas plays a crucial role in the exchange operations, according to their nationality and religious sect.

Prisoners and dead bodies of Iranian or Lebanese nationality (who are affiliated to the Iranian militias and the Lebanese “Hezbollah” militia) are of greater interest to the regime than the Syrian ones, whether they were prisoners or dead bodies, and regardless of their sects, according to “Abu Bakr.”

Three prisoners’ exchange operations in one week

In the last week, each one of these factions: the NFL, the HTS, and the Rouse the Believers Operations Room made a prisoners’ swapping deal with the regime’s forces.

The first operation was held between the HTS and the regime’s forces in Darat Izza area, north-western Aleppo countryside on 16 May.

This operation led to the release of three members of the HTS and another member from the” Ahrar al-Sham Movement” in exchange for the release of the Syrian regime’s Colonel Abdul Karim Suleiman, captured in the Kafr Naboda battels in northern Hama countryside in 2019.

Another soldier from the regime’s forces captivated on the Salamiyah road in rural Hamah in 2014 was handed over to the regime, in addition to a dead body that the faction did not clarify its identity.

The second exchange operation was conducted on 18 May between the “Sham Legion” faction, which belongs to the SNA and the regime’s forces.

In this operation, three members of the “Sham Legion” captured in the battles of the southern Aleppo countryside were released from the regime’s prisons. The released prisoners’ names were: Thaer Othman, Hassan Tahya, and Mazen Kanina.

On the other side, a soldier of the regime’s forces held by the factions in the recent battels was released along with a woman accused by the faction that she was spying for the regime and providing it with geographic coordinates related to the faction.

In the same operation, the regime received two dead bodies, one of which belonged to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, while the other to a member of al-Zahraa town in Aleppo countryside.

The latest of these operations involved the release of two women with their children from the prisons of the Syrian regime, on 22 May. They were set free as by an exchange operation in the town of Taftanaz in eastern rural Idlib, between the GRO and the regime, in exchange for the release of three members of the regime forces.

 “Al-Farouk Abu Bakr”…

From the ornamentation and marble industry to negotiating the regime

The name of the former leader of the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement” and the current commander in the “al-Mu’tasim Division,” Alaa Adnan Ayoub, also known as (al-Farouk Abu Bakr), was only recognized by those he used to work with him in his profession of ornamentation and marble industry. His name was also acknowledged by his relatives, and some acquaintances until the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011.

He engaged in the Syrian revolution and was arrested twice by Syrian security services. Later, he joined the armed action as the formations of the “Free Syrian Army (FSA)” were emerging in Aleppo, and then he joined the ranks of the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement.”

“Abu Bakr” was born in al-Sukariya neighborhood in Aleppo city in 1984, and he dropped out of school after finishing middle school.

In 2014, he was appointed in charge of the relations office for prisoners’ affairs and exchange operations in Aleppo city.

He established a special office to follow up on prisoners-related matters and negotiations with the regime. The office included representatives from different factions in Aleppo.

In November 2016, “Abu Bakr” headed the negotiations with the regime for the evacuation of opposition fighters and civilians from Aleppo’s neighborhoods during its siege.

The negotiations eventually led to the evacuation of civilians from the eastern city districts, the departure of armed opposition fighters from the city, and the regime forces’ control on most of Aleppo city on 22 December 2016.

“Abu Bakr” was also responsible for the release deal of former leader of the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement” Hassan Sufan.

In 2017, “Abu Bakr” criticized the non-participation of the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement” in the Astana Peace Talks. In June 2018, he resigned from the movement and joined the “al-Mu’tasim Division,” one of the factions of the SNA.

Abu Bakr’s current relationship with the HTS is characterized by enmity, as he accused its leader, “Abu Muhammad al-Jolani” of treason. The accusation came after members of the HTS attacked the headquarters of the “Ahrar al-Sham Movement,” when the regime was launching battles in Rif Dimashq in March 2018.

Back then, “Abu Bakr” published on his “Twitter” account that instead of supporting opposition factions in their fight against the regime, al-Joulani chose to open a new front against another faction in support of the criminal regime.

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