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Syria offers amnesty to military deserters, but exiles are cautious

A Syrian refu­gee returning to the country in August holds a poster of President Bashar al-Assad in a bus window at the border crossing point of Jdeideh Yabous.
A Syrian refu­gee returning to the country in August holds a poster of President Bashar al-Assad in a bus window at the border crossing point of Jdeideh Yabous. (Sergei Grits/AP)
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BEIRUT — The Syrian government said Tuesday that it would grant amnesty to civilian men who have been avoiding military conscription, framing the move as a way to encourage refugees to return to a war-battered homeland.

Syria’s seven-year conflict has created the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and young men routinely cite fear of the draft as a key reason not to go back home. 

According to Tuesday’s decree, deserters inside Syria will have four months to take advantage of the amnesty and turn themselves in to authorities, while deserters outside the country will have six months. No guarantees were provided.

Although some of the provisions were not new, government officials stressed that their significance lay in the timing, coming as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military, backed by Russia and Iran, has recaptured all but one of the country’s provinces from rebel forces.

“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,” said Elia Samman, an adviser to the country’s Reconciliation Ministry.

But it was unclear how much the announcement would boost the government’s case for returns. Many exiles eyed the decree with mistrust, and international monitors urged caution. Reports from areas recently retaken by pro-government forces indicate that draft dodgers are still being targeted for arrest. In previous years, similar decrees have failed to prevent such arrests. 

“As with all things in Syria, the devil is in the detail,” Syria in Context, a weekly research briefing, said in its Tuesday release, adding that the “timeline will be prohibitive for many, particularly when there are no security guarantees in place around the decree.”

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.

“The decree is a trap,” said Firas al-Marhoum, a Syrian activist living in Turkey, describing the cases of several friends who he said had returned to Syria with apparent guarantees of safety from security officials, only to be arrested or conscripted within weeks.

“So how can you trust this regime?” he asked.

Millions of Syrian refugees across Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are facing pressure to return home as the war winds down. All three countries have restricted the refugees’ labor rights, and Syrians commonly speak of discrimination and even physical assaults. 

“We’re trapped between two fires,” one man said Tuesday in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for the safety of relatives in Syria. “Life here is a humiliation. Every day it feels like I’m living in a grave. But what is the alternative? The regime gives guarantees, but we have been hurt too much. I can’t believe them.”

International organizations and researchers monitoring the conditions for return cautioned Tuesday that the decree had the potential to encourage safe returns but that it remained difficult to assess.

“My view is that it should not be dismissed out of hand, despite the obvious grounds for deep skepticism,” said Paul Seils, director of the conflict-justice and reconciliation program at the European Institute of Peace and a former member of the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s office. “Instead it should be used as the first stage in a process to measure the reality of the conditions on the ground and the regime’s disposition.”

“If an amnesty process follows this kind of preliminary test and confidence-building measures, it could be tangible evidence of an emerging case for return,” Seils said. “On the other hand, a refusal to accept such a program indicates a lack of seriousness on the part of the regime.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report described Seils as director of the European Institute of Peace. He is director of the group’s conflict-justice and reconciliation program.

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