Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday granted amnesty to men within and outside Syria who deserted the regime’s armed forces or dodged military service, providing them several months for reporting for duty without repercussions.
The move “could boost the return of refugees who fled violence in their war-torn country,” the Associated Press (AP) acknowledges, adding:
The decree, published by state media, said the amnesty did not include “criminals” and those on the run unless they turn themselves in to authorities. Deserters in Syria have four months to do so; those abroad have six months.
Since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, tens of thousands of soldiers have either deserted their posts or defected and joined rebels trying to remove Assad from power. The amnesty also includes draft dodgers.
The new amnesty does not include army defectors, some of whom are still fighting against the government, mostly in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
Iran’s state-controlled Tasnim News Agency notes that under Syrian military law, deserters face years of prison if they abandon their post or fail to report for service within a set amount of time.
“The amnesty could encourage the return of refugees, some of whom have not been able to go back home because they were blacklisted for running away from military service. Other men have feared that if they return they will be punished or forced to join the military,” AP points out.
“The fear of conscription and potential punishment for ducking it or for desertion is frequently cited by aid groups as one of the main reasons refugees give for not wanting to return home,” Reuters adds.
Since the conflict began in March 2011, more than 5 million Syrian have reportedly fled their country. The war also displaced millions of others, killed about 400,000 people, and injured more than a million.
In late July 2016, Assad offered amnesty deemed a ruse to opposition forces who drop their weapons.
The state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted the amnesty decree as saying, “Whoever bore arms … and had escaped from justice … is pardoned from all punishment when they surrender themselves and their weapons to authorities … within three months,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
An unnamed spokesman for one of the Islamist rebel factions — Ahrar al-Sham — reportedly dismissed the offer as “meaningless,” adding, “No one will even consider it.”
Tuesday’s amnesty comes at a time when Assad controls most of Syria — more territory than any other stakeholder in the country.
AP acknowledges that the amnesty “decree comes at a time when government forces have managed over the past year to capture wide areas once held by insurgents, including in southern Syria and the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus.”
“In some areas, the government reached reconciliation deals with rebels who were given amnesty in return for laying down their arms,” it adds.
However, Reuters reveals, “While the amnesty covers desertion, it does not cover fighting against the government or joining the rebels, who are regarded by the Syrian government as terrorists.”
Under a Russia-Turkey deal to establish a demilitarized zone in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, rebels are expected to withdraw their heavy weapons from the region.
Opposition forces in Idlib, including al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters, have already removed their heavy weapons from the front lines in the province, according to the U.K.-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Assad reportedly granted the July 2016 general amnesty under similar circumstances — when Russia established safe corridors to allow civilians to leave the then-besieged area of Aleppo city.
Military support from Russia and Iran has allowed Assad to remain in power and seize more territory in Syria than any other warring party.
International forces and local troops have dealt the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) a major blow — decimating the terrorist group’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
However, the Islamic State terrorist group is regrouping, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) recently warned, noting, “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is reconstituting a capable insurgent force in Iraq and Syria despite efforts to prevent its recovery by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.”