Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made an offer of amnesty for those who have evaded military service or deserted the army amidst the country’s seven year conflict. Published on state social media, the decree applies to those residing both inside and outside the country and is seen as an attempt to help boost the repatriation of the scores of Syrian refugees residing in neighbouring countries and across the world. Those who fought against the Assad regime or joined rebel groups are blacklisted and will not be granted amnesty, and are continued to be viewed as “terrorists” by the Syrian government. However, the amnesty offer is being met with caution, driven by previous insincere amnesty offers from the Syrian government, as well as limited infrastructure in the country.
The decree noted that deserters currently residing within Syria will have four months to take advantage of the amnesty offer, while those outside the country will have six. Both require that they turn themselves in to authorities, guided by assertions that the amnesty offer covers all punishments for desertion. As all but one of the country’s provinces are back in control of the government, Elia Samman, an adviser to Syria’s Reconciliation Ministry has asserted that “the difference now is that the war is getting to an end and many Syrian young men will not be so afraid of joining the army now.” Yet many regard the decree with skepticism, as reports continue to emerge that draft dodgers are still being targeted for conscription or arrest.
Millions of Syrian refugees across Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are facing increased pressure to return home as the end of war appears near. While the pressures on host countries attempting to accommodate these refugees are legitimate, equally legitimate are the questions and concerns being expressed by those considering repatriation, as well as humanitarian bodies. There have been over 10 amnesties offered by the Syrian government, applicable to various groups of people, but all have been met with a sense of mistrust. Beyond the lack of guarantees provided by Assad’s amnesty decree, the conditions to accommodate the mass return of refugees are non-existent. While Lebanon has noted that some 50,000 Syrian refugees have voluntarily returned to Syria, this is a mere fraction of the overall million refugees residing on its soil.
Since Syria’s conflict began in 2011, drawing in regional and world powers, approximately five million Syrians fled to other countries, and millions have been displaced within Syria, with over half a million deaths, notes Reuters. Syrian military law holds that deserters can face years of prison if they do not report for service or leave their posts. According to a report from The Norwegian Country of Origin Information Centre from January 2018, deserters are typically treated in the same fashion as opposition activists, and some have been subjected to torture and there are cases of families being arrested and interrogated. Aid groups have cited this as one of the many push factors for seeking refuge elsewhere and resisting calls to return home.
Any attempt to rebuild Syria requires a population large enough to assist and accommodate a process of rebuilding infrastructure and the war-torn country from the ground up. The limited access to water, health, electricity and education all undermine the safety and dignity of returnees. While some resist returning due to concerns over their safety and general livelihood, a lack of trust in the government is also undermining repatriation efforts. The amnesty offer by the Syrian government could be used effectively as a confidence building measure, if acted upon consistently and genuinely. Given that Syria currently has a limited population and an enormous rebuilding challenge, it follows that the government has a vested interest in ensuring this amnesty is followed through sincerely.
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