Exclusive – Deserters Wary of Syrian Regime’s Pledge of Pardon
Syrian refugees, who shirked army conscription, have voiced skepticism of the regime’s amnesty from military service.
In October, the regime announced an amnesty for men who deserted the army or have avoided military service, giving them several months to report for duty without facing punishment.
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.
Ahmed, 26, completed his university degree during the second year of the Syrian war and is wanted for mandatory military enlistment.
However, along with a group of his university friends, he sought refuge in any country out of fear of being forced to report to duty.
He said that the majority of his friends would like to return to their homeland, “but the regime cannot be trusted.”
“It had previously issued similar pardons. Some were fooled and turned themselves over to the authorities or were sent to the frontline where they were killed,” he explained.
“Ending mandatory enlistment and a regime change are the only ways I will return,” he added, saying that this sentiment is shared with many others.
Millions of Syrians fled their country with the eruption of the war in 2011. Many sought refuge in neighboring countries and Europe in search of a better life. The United Nations estimates that some 5.6 million Syrians are displaced abroad and some 7 million are internally displaced.
Many of the refugees fled out of fear of being forced to enlist in regime forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that some 150,000 Syrian deserted conscription since the beginning of the war.
Enlistment is mandatory for every man who turns 18. Prior to the war, conscription lasted some two years. Now and as the war rages on, it could last an indefinite time.
The regime often tries to convince deserters to head to service, resorting to various means, such as the pardon that was announced in October.
Syria’s al-Watan newspaper estimated that some 800,000 were wanted for conscription in the reserves.
Samer, an English teacher in his 30s, fled Syria to Turkey in 2014 once he found out that he was soon going to be called up to enlist in the reserves.
“Many deserters who believed the previous pardons were arrested by the regime and many have gone missing,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“Assuming many of them do return, how will the regime treat them? Will they be lavished with care or treated as traitors?” he wondered.
Sources from Syrian border crossings told Asharq Al-Awsat that “very few” Syrians responded to the regime’s promise of amnesty.
Under Syrian military law, deserters can face years of prison if they leave their posts and do not report for service within a set amount of time.
Syria’s conflict began in 2011 after mass protests against the regime, eventually leading to half a million deaths and drawing in world and regional powers.
Many soldiers deserted, some to join the opposition and others to escape the fighting. More than half the pre-war population fled their homes.
While the amnesty covers desertion, it does not cover fighting against the regime or joining the opposition factions, who are regarded by the regime as terrorists.