Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Assad's latest offer is no amnesty at all

The small print reveals that this may simply be a ploy to swell the regime's depleted military ranks

President Bashar Al Assad's amnesty is not all that it may at first seem. AP/Hassan Ammar
President Bashar Al Assad's amnesty is not all that it may at first seem. AP/Hassan Ammar

After seven long and bloody years of bitter civil war that has cost the lives of more than half a million people and driven millions more into exile, the offer by the Syrian government of an amnesty for military deserters and those who refused to join the armed forces sounds like a potential step towards a broader reconciliation. But there is a catch. Anyone tempted by the offer would be well advised to read the small print, which makes it clear that President Bashar Al Assad’s forgiveness comes at a steep price – two years in the uniform of the very army they took a stand against.

The offer also falls short of extending an olive branch to refugees who fought for the rebels. Clearly, this is no exercise in reconciliation. One does not have to be a cynic to conclude that the offer of amnesty is more about swelling the ranks of Mr Al Assad’s army, depleted and exhausted after a long and drawn-out conflict, and now facing the prospect of a final showdown with massed opposition forces in Idlib.

Uppermost in the minds of many contemplating the offer will also be the question: can Mr Al Assad be trusted? This year, tens of thousands of refugees are reported to have already returned to Syria from Lebanon and Turkey, despite widespread fears among aid groups that they will face vetting, possible detention and conscription into the armed forces. To date, their fate is unclear, but there have been reports of arrests among their number.

As of this month, there are 5.6 million Syrians registered with the UN Refugee Agency, placing an increasingly untenable burden on neighbouring states, including Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands more have made the perilous journey into Europe. Many have died trying. All want to see an end to Syria’s brutal conflict and the vast majority of refugees live for the moment when they can return to their country and start to rebuild their homes and their lives. But for the tens of thousands of military-age Syrians who fled the country rather than take up arms against their fellow citizens, the offer of an amnesty from the Assad regime is almost certainly not that moment.