On the 4th of August 2012 the Free Syrian Army abducted 48 Iranians in Damascus. The Free Syrian Army maintains that the hostages are Revolutionary Guardsmen who are in Syria to aid the Bashar al Assad regime in its bloody 19-month-long crackdown on opponents. Iran maintains that the men are religious pilgrims.
Iran has repeatedly called for the release of 48 Iranian hostages held in Syria by rebel forces.
On the 4th of October their captors had threatened to execute the hostages unless the Syrian government releases rebels it is holding and withdraws from the embattled Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus province by late Saturday 6th October.
In a video aired by Al Arabiya on 5th October, members of the Bar'a brigade in the East Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, said, "If the Syrian regime, backed by the Iranian regime, does not release detainees and stop the shelling on unarmed civilians and indiscriminate killing of innocent of people within 48 hours from the release of this statement, an Iranian prisoner will be killed for each martyr who is killed."
Fortunately the deadline passed and the executions were not carried out.
Iran maintains that the hostages are harmless pilgrims though it later admitted that some of them are retired ex-revolutionary guards. Iran is calling on international organizations "to prevent the repetition of such anti-human measures and to do everything to obtain the immediate liberation of all the pilgrims and Iranian nationals." Iran also approached Turkey and Qatar to intervene to secure the release of the hostages.
I urge the Free Syrian Army to release the Iranian hostages unharmed and without prior conditions. As expected the Damascus regime refused to comply with the rebels' ultimatum and the Free Syrian Army did not proceed with the executions. I suggest that the Free Syrian Army release all the hostages unconditionally for several reasons:
For humanitarian reasons, I argue that they should be released. The hostages are individual recruits and employees and they were commanded by the Iranian government to enter Syria or by the Commander of the Al Quds Brigade Mr. Qassem Suleimani. They were simply obeying orders and did not choose to get involved by their own volition. In Iran no one can refuse to comply with an order from above without facing severe punishment.
Iran is going through hard economic times as the UN, the US and the EU sanctions are beginning to bite. The local currency has fallen to its lowest level since the 1979 Khomeini revolution. Prices of essentials are rising fast and the population is restive and is very angry with the mullahs ruling Iran for mismanaging the economy. According to a Sky News Report on 10th October "ordinary Iranians are reeling from soaring prices for household goods." The official inflation rate is 23%, but most analysts believe it is more than 70%. This has already led to street protests, and with foreign reserves almost empty the Iranian government will struggle to contain popular anger. If the Free Syrian Army executes the hostages, the Iranians will turn their anger towards the Syrian opposition which would only benefit the Tehran unpopular regime.
Executing the hostages would benefit the Syrian regime politically. It would be a godsend to Bashar al Assad's regime which will exploit the execution to portray the opposition as blood-thirsty terrorists. It could also embarrass the supporters of the Syrian opposition.
Executing the hostages would tarnish the image of the Free Syrian Army as a pro-democracy and freedom fighters. We all know that Bashar al-Assad and his thuggish regime are the real terrorists. They have killed more than 20,000 Syrians since Mid March 2011. It would be a public relations disaster. It would alienate the Arab and Muslim streets.
I urge the FSA to release all the 48 hostages unharmed and without conditions. Making unrealistic demands will not work. There is no point in asking Iran to apologise because it won't. No point in asking Iran to sever its relations with the Damascus regime because it won't. According to Tehran Times, Sunday 14th October "According to the Tehran Times (Sunday14th October) "Even if the FSA kills the Iranian nationals, it will have no effect on the friendly relations between Iran and Syria. But it would seriously harm diplomatic relations between Iran and the three governments supporting the insurgency in Syria (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey)".
Releasing the hostages unharmed would only enhance the image of the Syrian armed opposition in the eyes of the world. The Syrian regime is in a hole; don't do anything stupid to save it.