BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian government has 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, it said on Tuesday.
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.
In a decree issued on his social media feeds, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the amnesty covered all punishments for desertion inside or outside Syria.
Men inside Syria will have four months to take advantage of the amnesty while those outside will have six months.
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 Assad’s rule, eventually leading to half a million deaths and drawing in world and regional powers.
Many soldiers deserted, some to join the rebels and others to escape the fighting. More than half the pre-war population fled their homes. About 5 million went abroad and millions of others were displaced within Syria.
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.
In the past three years, Russian and Iranian military support has helped Assad regain control of numerous enclaves held by anti-Assad rebels or jihadist militants, ending fighting in many areas.
After a Russian-Turkish deal to avert an assault on the last major opposition stronghold, in the northwest, it is unclear if there will be significant new military offensives soon.
Lebanon says 50,000 Syrian refugees, among the more than a million it says are on its soil, have gone home voluntarily in assisted returns this year.
However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says conditions have not yet been fulfilled for mass refugee returns. Speaking in Beirut in August, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said refugees were concerned about conscription, as well as other issues such as the lack of infrastructure.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Kevin Liffey