Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has announced that he will grant a pardon for returning Syrians who dodged obligatory military service, including many refugees who are now in Europe. But is the move genuine or simply for image purposes?
On Tuesday, the Syrian government granted general amnesty to army deserters living both in Syria and outside the country. Army deserters have four months in Syria to turn themselves in while those abroad have six months. In Syria, military service is compulsory for all Syrian males over the age of 18.
More than five million Syrians have fled the country, which has been in a state of civil war between the opposition and the Syrian government since 2011. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that 150,000 Syrian men are dodging compulsory military service.
The measure comes as the Syrian government has retaken most of the country back from the opposition, except for the province of Idlib, which has been affected by a ceasefire deal forged between Russia and Turkey where rebels are to give up their arms. There are also areas of northern Syria occupied by the Turkish army as well as some areas under Kurdish administration.
Dr. André Bank, the interim director at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg, Germany, says this move by the Syrian government is significant in several ways. "It is clearly part of an image that President al-Assad wants to create that the war in Syria is about to end," Bank told InfoMigrants. Assad wants to signal to Syrians abroad as well as to the international community that the war in Syria is in its final stages and that a "new phase in Syria is about to begin." The Assad regime wants to tell Syrian refugees abroad that some of them are welcome back.
Assad attempting to create 'division' among Syrians abroad, Bank says
Yet it is extremely difficult for the Assad regime to determine whether Syrian refugees coming back home either deserted, where they just left and avoided military service, or defected, meaning they not only left the Syrian military but also joined the opposition in some way. The Assad regime clearly laid out that this pardon is not for "criminals" and those who joined the other side, but only for those who have deserted. "By creating this distinction between those Syrians who just abandoned military service and those who actively took up arms, the Assad regime is trying to create a division among the Syrian community living abroad," Bank said.
Assad actively calls the opposition to his regime "terrorists," and wants to send a signal that those who have played any role in opposing his governance are not welcome back in Syria. "What does it mean to be excluding 'criminals'?" Bente Scheller, the director of the Middle East Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Beirut told InfoMigrants about the pardon. "This is a very flexible term in a state that considers any kind of opposition as 'terrorists.'"
Scheller added that those who fled military service are not necessarily opposed to the regime. "Among the young men who fled Syria, there's a significant number that is not intrinsically opposed to Assad - but they did not want to die for him," she said. She also added that the "longer the war lasted, the more limited the period of training became - from half a year of training initially to only a few weeks of rushed training before being sent to hot fronts." As the training became shorter and the Syrians were pushed to the frontlines sooner, more and more Syrians fled military service. The decree does not specify whether the deserters granted amnesty will ultimately be enlisted to serve in the Syrian army.
An unwarm welcome for Syrian returnees
Although Assad may try to send a signal that tries to "welcome" some Syrians back to the country, these refugees have to take the possible risk that they could be persecuted by the regime when they return. "The meticulous searches and interrogations in areas the regime has taken back, the arrests and forced disappearance – all of that is continuing and limits the expectation that the regime will be inspired by good faith when checking deserters’ files," Scheller said.
Some Syrian refugees will come back to their homes being given over to those who fought on behalf of the Assad regime. "You can't go back to your home and just legally claim your house," Bank said. "Because this has been given as war booty to those who fought on behalf of the regime, whether they be Syrian army members or Iranian, Afghan, Lebanese or Iraqis fighters."
Bank said that Syrians abroad now have to make a choice between staying in Europe, where anti-migrant and anti-Syrian rhetoric has heated up in the past few years or going back to Syria, where they could possibly face persecution. "A lot of Syrians are being retraumatized in Europe with the rise of the right wingers in government, as well as anti-Syrian discourse in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon," Banks said. "They are torn between a number of really bad options."
Scheller said that the pardon may indeed cause some refugees to come back to Syria under Assad. "Seeing that the war is winding down, these might be the ones considering to return if there was an amnesty," she said. "However, they might also be aware that there are no guarantees."