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'Ridiculous': Syrians reject call to return and fight

Embassy in Berlin mocked after it called on Syrians to come home and take up military service
The Syrian government has asked refugees to come back whether they had left 'illegally or legally' (Reuters)

Maazen Hassoun laughed when he saw the Syrian embassy in Berlin had called for citizens abroad to “clarify” their status, return to the country and join the army.

The announcement on a poster outside the mission in the German capital spread quickly among Syrians on social media on Tuesday. It promised Syrians they would be able to return regardless of whether they had left “illegally or legally”, or completed their military service.

“It was really ridiculous," Hassoun, a Syrian journalist living in Germany, told Middle East Eye. "They are asking people to go back to Syria. Did they forget people fled because of them? They are telling the people to come back home but actually there’s no Syria any more.”

President Bashar al-Assad is reasserting his control over the country as his forces retake rebel-held strongholds. The government’s recapture of southwestern Syria led to hundreds of thousands being displaced in recent months and another offensive on northern Idlib province could force another 700,000 from their homes, the UN warned on Wednesday.

But even with so many still displaced, the Syrian government has recently increased its calls for refugees to return to the country.

For many Syrians such as Hassoun, who have not completed compulsory military service, the idea of “settling” their military status holds no appeal, its implications made obvious by the immediate drafting of former rebels as conscripts in the Syrian army after their surrender to Assad’s forces.

“People, for example, in Eastern Ghouta are doing their military service, but what kind of military service are they doing?” said Hassoun. “No human can do such a thing. No one will willingly join this army. I can’t imagine bombing the city and destroying and looting and committing war crimes.”

The government has increasingly sought to portray the country as safe for the more than 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees to return to, but the numbers returning are small. Only 3,000 refugees in northern Lebanon signed up to return to the district of Qalamoun, despite ever-increasing pressure on them to leave the country. Not all who signed up were accepted for repatriation either, with some families ending up divided because only the women were allowed to return.

In reality, the military service the Syrian government has asked refugees to complete is a major reason many are scared to return. They do not want to be involved in the war. 

A report by for Norway's immigration authorities said draft evasions had become the main reason for young men fleeing the country. 

Hassan al-Kontar, a Syrian who has spent more than six months living in a Malaysian airport because he was turned away from several countries and refuses to return to Syria to serve in the army, said the wording in the Berlin embassy's announcement was vague. 

He said the offer for those who had not done their military service to "settle" their status was "too good to be true".

"They may remove the fine or the punishment but we still need to serve," Kontar said. "Once we do that, they will have 100 percent control over us and they may break their promises."

In reality, he felt no Syrians who had left the country would have any faith in government promises for a safe return. 

"They are just trying to show other nations that they are trying to solve the refugee issues, so they will break their isolation with the international community."