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Syria's Assad's announces amnesty for army deserters: Syrian TV

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Venezuelan state television TeleSUR in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on September 26, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree announcing a general amnesty for military deserters who violated the country’s compulsory military conscription law, state television said on Saturday.

The decree, which was announced on state television, said the law that would lift legal penalties against thousands of army deserters applied to those outside and inside Syria.

The Syrian army, one of the region’s largest, has been over stretched by a four-year long insurgency where it is battling on several major fronts Islamist rebels and ultra-hardline jihadist militants who have seized large swathes of territory. Many young men have fled the country or find ways to avoid conscription.

The army has been forced in recent months to withdraw from large parts of the northwestern province of Idlib in the face of an assault by a coalition of Islamist brigades and was unable to defend the desert city of Palmyra in central Syria, when it was overrun by Islamic State.

Some diplomats say the army is now focused on defending strategic areas like Damascus, Homs and strongholds of Assad’s minority Alawite sect in coastal areas.

With no end in sight to the war, the Syrian army’s manpower shortages have surfaced in recent months by growing reliance on recruitment in loyalist militias in state-controlled provinces, where those volunteering are offered lucrative pay.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah has also played a more visible role in fighting radical Syrian insurgents in the battle for Qalamoun and nearby Syrian city of Zabadani, located in a mountainous region bordering Lebanon and close to the Syrian capital.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra