One chilly night in recent months, a group of former Syrian army defectors gathered in an apartment in one of Syria’s neighboring countries.
The meeting was called suddenly. It was only a few days earlier that the men had agreed on a time.
As the men sipped from cups of coffee and smoked cigarettes late into the night, the conversation turned grave. They began discussing the question that had brought them together.
“Is it safe to go home?”
The night’s host was Abu Abdullah,* a former Syrian army officer with decades of service behind him. Like all of the guests sitting around the room, he defected shortly after Syria’s uprising began, abandoning his post and fleeing with his family across the border to a neighboring country.
This meeting was not his idea: several other defectors asked to visit to hear his thoughts on a recent decree by the Syrian government promising amnesty for defectors.
Abu Abdullah repeated what he had told his friends time and time again: it’s not safe to return; the government will not forget what we’ve done. All agreed with Abu Abdullah as they drank their coffees, but one of the attendees, a man named Abu Mamdouh, pushed back.
Abu Mamdouh fled Syria several years ago. Years scraping by on intermittent odd jobs as a manual laborer had taken their toll. His desire to return to home—or what was left of it—had only grown.
Most of the men gathered around that evening tried to dissuade him.
“We spent most of the night trying to convince him not to go,” Abu Abdullah tells Syria Direct. “I’ve been friends with him for years, even since before the revolution.”
Despite their best efforts, Abu Mamdouh returned. He is one of an unknown number of defected officers, soldiers and young men wanted for military service back home who in recent months have returned to Syria from neighboring countries—seemingly persuaded by the promises of amnesty from the Syrian government.
But others question just how safe that is.
Since returning, none of Abu Mamdouh’s friends or family have heard from him. A relative, speaking on strict condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, tells Syria Direct that he was separated from family members by Syrian authorities immediately after he had returned, and taken away. His whereabouts are still unknown.
Syria Direct has withheld any information pertaining to specific names, places and times to protect the safety and security of Abu Mamdouh and his family.
[Ed.: To read Abu Mamdouh’s interview with Syria Direct weighing his decision to return home, click here.]
After the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011, thousands of soldiers and officers defected from the Syrian army. Everyone had their own reasons—some sided with the wave of peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government, others simply refused to take part in their violent suppression.
Thousands of defectors made up the bulk of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), when it was formed in the fall of 2011. After joining the FSA, Syrian soldiers would often film themselves announcing their defection.
A still from a Youtube video showing former Syrian army Major Raed a-Naimi announcing his defection in 2012. Photo courtesy of Sultan a-Zahrane.
But defection came at a price. Those who abandoned their posts were immediately wanted by Damascus, while defectors are largely barred from international protection and resettlement procedures—even long after fleeing Syria—due to their status as former combatants.
Combatants in armed conflicts who flee to a third country are typically excluded from seeking asylum, although international refugee law does maintain that those who have severed their relationships with warring parties may be granted protection on a case-by-case basis.
Still, several former Syrian officers who defected and fled the country towards either neighboring countries or Europe tell Syria Direct that they have been denied resettlement—and even food and medical aid in their countries of residence. For some, like Abu Mamdouh, the harsh realities of life in exile eventually make the prospect of home far more appealing.
‘I’m tired of life here’
“If Syria was just one-percent safe [for me], I would return,” Abu Muhammad, a 40-year-old former Syrian officer currently in a neighboring country, tells Syria Direct. “But that would mean losing my life and my family.”
“I’ll tell you the truth, though: I’m tired of life here.”
Abu Muhammad defected from the army and fled with his family in 2012.
After they fled Syria, Abu Muhammad was separated from his wife and children after local authorities learned that he was an officer in the Syrian military. He was put in a camp.
More than one country neighboring Syria established special camps for defected military officers and conscripts, often restricting their freedom of movement.
The result is a state of limbo for defected officers like Abu Hadi, a formerly high-ranking member of the Syrian army who left his post and fled to Jordan in 2012. When he first arrived to Jordan, Abu Hadi lived in a desert camp in northern Jordan designated for former combatants, visiting his family via the camp’s temporary leave permit.
“We want to live normally,” Abu Muhammad tells Syria Direct. “But what can we do?”
‘When the fighting started, I couldn’t stay’
One day, after arriving in Jordan, Abu Hadi's cell phone started ringing.
For years, the former Syrian army officer had been renewing his monthly leave permit to visit his family outside of a-Rajhi camp; the closed-off, defectors-only settlement where the veteran technically resided until a Jordanian national eventually sponsored his exit from the camp.
On the other end of the call was an employee from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, who invited Abu Hadi and his family to travel to the Jordanian capital to discuss his resettlement file.
“They chose Sweden for us,” Abu Hadi remembers. “They gave us a date and time for an interview, and we went to their office.”
Abu Hadi gathered his family’s paperwork including birth certificates and IDs issued by the Syrian government, the Jordanian Ministry of Interior and two refugee camps—as well as his Syrian military ID.
“When the [UNHCR] employee saw I was military, he told me we’d been rejected,” Abu Hadi remembers. “They closed the whole file.”
Abu Hadi's young daughter suffers from a chronic health condition and requires expensive monthly treatment, he tells Syria Direct.
Could his family leave Jordan without him?
“‘Separate my file from my family’s, let my family leave so my daughter can get treatment’,” Abu Hadi remembers pleading.
“But the employee didn’t accept this idea.”
The family’s interview was preliminary, likely set to be the first of many. Resettlement for Syrian refugees is a complicated process involving security checks from multiple countries, health examinations and repeated interviews that often takes years to complete.
A UNHCR spokesperson declined to comment when asked for clarification on the legal status of former combatants and defectors.
‘I didn’t kill anyone’
Upwards of one million Syrian refugees now reside in Europe following years of irregular, often perilous, journeys over land and sea towards the continent. Small numbers of former combatants made the journey, as well, including defectors.
Abu Ibrahim counts each passing day from his home in Europe, where he lives with his wife and children. After more than three years in Europe, he fears his time there could be coming to an end.
For nearly 30 years, Abu Ibrahim served in the Syrian military. But when mass anti-government protests were violently suppressed in his native Daraa province, he abandoned his post and fled with his family.
“When the fighting started, when we learned that the regime was killing our people, I couldn’t stay,” Abu Ibrahim tells Syria Direct. “Who kills their own people?”
Abu Ibrahim paid smugglers to get him and his family to Turkey. Three years later, in 2015, Abu Ibrahim and his family were among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who made a perilous journey over the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
Abu Ibrahim asked that Syria Direct not publish further details about his journey, nor specify in which European country he now resides.
But Abu Ibrahim fears he could be moving once again soon. Although his wife and children have now obtained residency permits, Abu Ibrahim says his application for political asylum was rejected on the basis that he was a former combatant in an armed conflict.
“I asked [local authorities] why they refused my residency, I didn’t commit any crimes with the regime,” Abu Ibrahim tells Syria Direct, his voice shaking as he recalls his last asylum hearing.
“I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t fight anyone at all,” he says. “Not once.”
In Europe, asylum applications by Syrian army defectors are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Each year of military service must be parsed and investigated, taking into consideration widespread reports of crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian army as well as the extensive litany of abuses against detainees in Syria even before the revolution began.
A handful of individuals accused of committing these abuses and atrocities have also traveled to Europe from Syria, many of them later pursued by local authorities. Their presence, plus the lack of any pre-screening before informal crossings into Europe, adds a complex layer to the issue of former combatants.
The result is that high-ranking former officers with decades of military service have a much harder time being approved for asylum than young conscripts or recruits, explains Haneen Bitar, a lawyer with the Justice Center for Legal Aid (JCLA).
“It’s much less dangerous to take in younger officers who have spent limited time in the army,” Bitar tells Syria Direct. “Resettlement is hard for everyone these days, but it’s much harder for ex-military refugees.”
Abu Ibrahim maintains that he never participated in any violence before or after the war began. During his 30 years of service, Syria was a “country at peace,” he explains.
“I left because I didn’t want to fight. I won’t fight. I won’t kill,” he tells Syria Direct. “I have no reason to.”
Returns will 'increase as the situation involves'
Abu Ibrahim is working with his lawyer to appeal the asylum decision, and his final court date is next month. He is set to appear in front of a judge to plead his case.
If his appeal fails, he’ll be asked to leave the country. Although international refugee law will prevent him from being returned to Syria against his will, he could be confined to administrative detention with his freedom of movement severely restricted.
Even so, returning home is not an option, he says. His eldest son is of military age, and even in Europe he fears reprisals from the Syrian government’s intelligence services, or mukhabarat.
“[The mukhabarat] have a long reach that can find me, even here,” he tells Syria Direct.
Three of his brothers were arrested by the mukhabarat shortly after he left Syria, he says, and later executed. Abu Ibrahim says he tried, and failed, to prove their killings to European authorities.
“How can I prove this to you? I can’t. No one can,” he tells Syria Direct. “What we hear about on the news is only a small part of what’s actually happening—even the UN can’t see inside Syria.”
The UN and most other international aid groups do not advise Syrians to return to the country, citing unsafe conditions and a still-volatile conflict.
Still, returns are taking place. Some 13,000 Syrians returned from Jordan to Syria since October last year, while Lebanese President Michel Aoun claimed that 167,000 Syrians had returned to Syria from Lebanon in recent months.
Yet monitoring the conditions of returnees is a challenge, largely because of conditions imposed by the Syrian government, and UNHCR called on the Syrian government at last week’s international "Brussels III" conference to allow neutral parties to observe returns from inside Syria.
In a statement to the conference on March 14, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi suggested that returns to Syria “will increase as the situation evolves, but large-scale movements back home will take some more time.”
“Returns must continue to be, as they have been so far, voluntary, well-informed and not shaped by political considerations,” Grandi added.
Still, returnees make up just a small fraction of the number of Syrian refugees abroad, many of whom remain unconvinced by the idea of going back to Syria for the time being.
For defectors like Abu Ibrahim, thoughts of return come with fears of torture and imprisonment.
“I’d rather throw myself in front of a car than go back,” Abu Ibrahim tells Syria Direct.
“At least that way my death would be quick.”
*Syria Direct has changed the names of all sources quoted in this report to protect their identities.