By Akram Touma

Since 2016, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with the help of its Russian and Iranian allies, has employed indiscriminate attacks and siege warfare to negotiate surrender of several areas formerly held by the opposition forces. Many of these negotiated surrenders have included so called “reconciliation deals” mostly offered to people formerly affiliated with the opposition forces, but in some cases to the entire population who chose to stay after the area was retaken by the regime. These “reconciliation deals,” whose implementation was supposed to be guaranteed by Russia, nominally envisaged that those who stayed in the areas retaken by the regime would, in exchange for detailed “confession” of their affiliation with the opposition forces, have their rights restored, be free from persecution, harassment and, importantly, from the forced recruitment into Assad’s forces for at least six months. The regime’s propaganda has hailed these agreements as a model for return of the displaced Syrians, often tricking some of those most desperate, living in the increasingly difficult conditions of displacement, to return.

Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD) has repeatedly warned that the “guarantees” given under “reconciliation deals” are worthless and that people in these areas are facing daily threats, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and death. The research shows that one of the greatest sources of danger and fears facing people in “reconciliation areas” is that of forced recruitment into Assad’s military.

Numerous reports and testimonies speak of the widespread practice in which the people who have entered “reconciliation agreements” and their families, are at the same time wanted by the security branches for being “connected to anti-regime elements” and by the military for deployment to the most dangerous frontlines in Idlib and Hama regions. Once they are recruited, they are immediately shipped to these frontlines where they often die at the hands of their former comrades or in murky circumstances away from the frontline itself. Forced recruitment has become a way for the regime to obliterate what it sees as anti-regime elements standing in the way of its vision of demographically engineering a loyal and obedient population. Examples testifying to this method of retaliation against the people who “reconciled” are numerous.

SACD has just published research documenting hundreds of death of forcibly conscripted youth from “reconciliation areas” at the hands of regime loyalists in retaliation for their desperate attempts to escape from the frontline or at the hands of their former comrades and relatives in battles in the north of Syria.

The moral and existential dilemmas imposed on the people from these areas are titanic and heartbreaking. Some activists blame the young people who signed the reconciliation agreements for having chosen to settle with the regime in order to stay in their homes. Others sympathize with them, knowing the difficult circumstances they suffered and the almost certain prospect of enforced disappearance if they fail to report when they are wanted for recruitment. Caught between a rock of forced recruitment and a hard place of arrest by Assad’s security if they refuse to report, the outcome for many is dire, regardless of the choice they make.

The testimonies of victims’ relatives and close friends, and the profile of the victims and their trajectory during the last few years, clearly show that some of them used to fight with the armed opposition, while others just returned to regime-held areas lured by regime propaganda and Russian promises of safety, unfortunately sometimes amplified in the narratives of some international organisations working on Syria.

Russian guarantees, which were the decisive factor to convince many of those who stayed in areas covered by the “reconciliation agreements,” are now literally claiming lives. There are a number of cases of men from “reconciliation areas” who refused to join the military service – relying on the Russian guarantees that they will not be forced to Assad’s army for at least six months after the agreements were signed – being arrested, disappeared and killed by the regime’s security forces. At the beginning of March 2019, in the countryside of Homs Ibrahim Obaid, Tariq Zakur and Mohammad Tariyah, were all killed and their bodies were sent to their families, after they were arrested for refusing to be recruited less than three months after the start of the reconciliation agreement secured by Russia. Dozens of other people from the northern countryside of Homs who signed up for the settlement and refused to report to the army on the basis of Russian guarantees were detained and are still in Assad’s prisons, their fate unknown.

The situation of the northern Homs countryside is not unique, as the people of eastern Ghouta received 4000 summoning reports ordering them to report to the units to perform the military service immediately after the “reconciliations.” This summons were issued despite the explicit provision in the agreement that gives those who stay a period of six months before they can be called upon to join the military service. Large number of young people who remained in eastern Ghouta opted to obey the orders to avoid the arrests that began to take place against some who refused to report.

Daraa’s various cities and villages are also subjected to dozens of cases of forced recruitment and detention that are all in violation of what has been agreed upon between the areas that have been reconciled on the one hand and the Russians and the regime on the other. The regime’s security forces in Dara’s are apprehending people who have “settlement cards” every day. The Ahrar Houran group has documented 683 cases of arrests since the agreement was signed in July 2018.

The only option for the vast majority of youth from “reconciliation areas” is to flee. To Lebanon, north of Syria or anywhere else where they will have a chance of surviving. But, with the Russian assault on Idlib intensifying, and anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon and Turkey on the rise, they are finding their prospects of reaching safety dwindling. What was supposed to be a model for return of the vast numbers of displaced Syrians has now become yet another driver of displacement.

After almost a year since the last reconciliation agreement was concluded, we can clearly see that Assad’s regime was able to benefit from the youth who remained in “reconciliation areas” by forcibly recruiting them and deploying them on the most violent frontlines. The most energetic part of the population in areas which could have provided some sort of resistance to his policies is effectively being obliterated in this way. At the same time, the regime’s security forces continue to arrest and kill persons from these areas whom it regards as a direct threat to its power. Such arrests and killings are being carried out in direct contravention of the terms of the agreements, which Russia had guaranteed, and testify to the retaliatory policies of the regime targeting anyone formerly affiliated with the opposition.

“Reconciliation agreements” areas are today among the most unsafe territories in Assad’s failed state. Arrests, enforced disappearance and forced recruitment which often amounts to a death sentence are a daily occurrence. Far from being a model for return of millions of displaced Syrians, they provide for a warning to the international community that any solution which will bring a hope of a lasting peace in Syria must include a robust international mechanism to monitor and ensure the rights of all Syrians, and particularly those who were already on the receiving end of Assad’s criminal conduct.