Returnees or traitors? RT examines conflicted, broken lives in Assad’s ‘amnesty regiments’

RT has become the first international news media to spend time with the Syrian government’s amnesty regiments – where those who deserted or fought with the rebels were given a chance to fight for the government in return for a pardon.

“Allow me to address you on behalf of myself and my comrades. We're asking for permission to change our name from the "Amnestied group" to the "Warriors of Assad.” Our soul, our blood we give to you, Bashar!”

A soldier bellows out these words as men stand in formation, in their new government-issued uniforms. A perfect propaganda image for a government looking to beat the rebels, or convince them to surrender.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has offered a series of amnesties to those fighting him almost from the start of the conflict in 2011. In his words, it is a generous offer of reconciliation for a nation that has lost hundreds of thousands of lives and millions as refugees. His opponents claim it is a hollow public relations move or a weapon of psychological warfare.

As RT found out, the truth is more nuanced, particularly for those caught between the two sides.

No one knows exactly what each man here did, when he was in rebel-controlled territory, but every one has his own story.

Fadi Mustafa Habash tells interviewers that he was a regular serviceman, who was captured by what was then the Al-Nusra Front, at the time an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group, for 10 days.

He says he was told to defect and fight for them, but he had sustained a torn ligament in his arm, and could not carry a weapon, so was assigned as a janitor and servant behind the lines.

Habash says he was horrified by the Islamists’ behavior.

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“I swear, they'd enter the mosque, the house of Allah, and drink and do unworthy things to naked women. All before my eyes. Then they'd pray. They asked me to bring those women into the room. I served them tea. They asked me whether I also wanted a woman, I said ‘no’,” he told RT.

“They'd rape the guys they captured. They'd drink alcohol and go down into the basement. They tortured people. Imagine, they even beat me in the bathroom, with a rod or a hose.”

Habash was recaptured after only ten days, before being jailed, and now rehabilitated.

A man who only gives his first name, Melad, does not give any excuses and says he voluntarily joined Al-Nusra Front, though claims he was only a checkpoint guard, and did not kill a single government soldier.

He says he was shocked by the rape and torture within the group, and defected voluntarily, before signing a reconciliation document, promising he would no longer fight the government.

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Yet he himself feels ambivalent about the amnesty.

“Those who didn't kill anyone are entitled to receive the president's amnesty. But those who have blood on their hands cannot be forgiven. How can I forgive someone who killed my brother, for example? How can I forgive him?”

His feeling is shared by Hatem Janoud, another man in the regiment, who says he “can’t trust” Melad, recounting that when the two were in police detention, he (Melad) never admitted to being one of the rebels, and claimed to have merely been caught overstaying his army leave.

The mistrust exists among others fighting on the same side. The documentary shows regular forces refusing to train alongside the amnesty regiment, while those in more senior positions have reservations about sending these units to difficult assignments, just as the soldiers serving in them suspect that their lives are not considered as valuable as those of regular troops.

RT’s crew went beyond interviews arranged by government officials, and asked how ordinary Syrians feel about the amnestied regiments.

“Those who turned against their own country and took advantage of the crisis to rob and destroy it can't become normal people again,” says one woman in Damascus.

“There are two types of people: the ones who maybe realized their mistakes and gave up their arms and ones who surrendered for the wrong reasons. Maybe they’re thinking of joining our forces to spy for someone,” says a man.

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“Imagine that an amnestied person is placed to man a checkpoint in your neighborhood. How would you feel about that? I hope to never end up in a situation like this. I wouldn't wish that upon myself,” argues another resident of the Syrian capital.

Amnesty in Wartime will be broadcast on RT on August 8,9 and 14, and on RT’s documentary channel RTD, each day next week, from Monday to Sunday.