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Syrian President Grants General Amnesty to Army Deserters

FILE - In this photo released June 13, 2018, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Iran's Al Alam TV, in Damascus, Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Assad granted general amnesty on Tuesday to army deserters both within Syria and those outside the country, a move that could boost the return of refugees who fled violence in their war-torn country.

The decree, published by state media, said the amnesty did not include "criminals" and those on the run unless they turn themselves in to authorities. Deserters in Syria have four months to do so; those abroad have six months.

Since Syria's conflict began in March 2011, tens of thousands of people have either deserted their posts or defected and joined rebels trying to remove Assad from power. The amnesty also includes draft dodgers.

The new amnesty does not include army defectors, some of whom are still fighting against the government, mostly in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in the country.

The amnesty could encourage the return of refugees, some of whom have not been able to go back home because they were blacklisted for running away from military service. Other men have feared that if they return they would be punished or forced to join the military.

Aron Lund, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation, wrote in a tweet on the amnesty: "Can't overestimate how important this is for many Syrians: conscription has been a major, major driver of exile, and draft issues — own or in family — stop many non-political refugees from returning.''

More than 5 million Syrians have fled their country since the conflict began, while million others have been internally displaced. The seven-year war has also killed more than 400,000 people and left more than a million wounded.

The decree comes at a time when government forces have managed over the past year to capture wide areas once held by insurgents, including in southern Syria and the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus. In some areas, the government reached reconciliation deals with rebels who were given amnesty in return for amnesty.

The flashpoint in Syria is now in Idlib, where insurgents have been withdrawing their heavy weapons from a demilitarized zone agreed upon between Turkey and Russia last month. The deal sough to avoid a wide government offensive on the province.

On Monday, Turkey's official news agency reported that Syrian rebels finished withdrawing all their heavy weapons from the front lines in implementation of the deal reached last month that's expected to demilitarize a stretch of 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) along the front lines by Oct. 15.