There are multiple anti-government armed groups active in Syria (see Anti-government armed groups). This profile addresses members of anti-government armed groups, including current and former (reconciled) members, and their targeting by the GoS. See also the general COI summary under Persons perceived to be opposing the government.
For targeting of members of these groups by other armed actors, see Persons perceived to be opposing the SDF/YPG and Members of and persons perceived to be collaborating with the SDF and YPG.
The government’s security forces, the police, the army, pro-government militias and the different branches of the intelligence service carried out extensive arrest campaigns during the first years of the civil war. Already in 2012, it was estimated that tens of thousands of people had been arrested on the grounds of alleged affiliation to or support for anti-government groups. Those who were arrested were subjected to systematic torture in one of the intelligence services’ many detention centres. They were detained for days or months, often without being brought before a judge and without being told what they were accused of. In most cases, the detainees’ families were not informed of their whereabouts. Detainees were held in crowded cells and without sufficient food. [Security 2019, 4.3]
GoS has entered into so-called reconciliation agreements with different actors in most of the areas the GoS forces have recaptured from various anti-government groups in the last few years. The reconciliation agreements vary to a great extent. They may range from opposition fighters remaining involved in security and governance roles in their areas up to cases of virtual opposition surrender involving (forced) evacuations of fighters or even whole populations. In several places, armed rebel groups have switched sides in the conflict as part of a reconciliation agreement. [Targeting, 1.2.1]
Applications from individuals who wished to surrender are also possible. The formal process known as ‘resolving status’ typically involves interrogation about previous opposition activities (such as participating in protests, relief work in rebel-held areas or fighting with rebels), many of which fall under the GoS’s expansive definition of ‘terrorism’. Additionally, it involves a pledge to abstain from these actions in the future. Thereafter, the individual receives a clearance paper and the security agencies supposedly remove him or her from their list of wanted persons. [Recaptured areas, 2.5.1]
However, the reconciliation agreements have been broken often. In particular, former activists, opposition commanders and persons who have been affiliated to an armed rebel group have been arrested despite the reconciliation agreements [Targeting, 1.2.1]. Furthermore, civilians and former opposition fighters who signed reconciliation agreements with GoS and who took up positions in local administration or military forces have been killed by unknown perpetrators in what appeared to be targeted killings [Recaptured areas, 220.127.116.11].
In Dar’a governorate, many former rebels chose to stay unlike in other parts of Syria. Reconciled fighters and civilians joined the pro-GoS forces in order to avoid being perceived as opposition affiliates or terrorists. [Recaptured areas, 18.104.22.168]
In Homs, a significant number of reconciled combatants were incorporated into the Fifth Corps, 4th Brigade. They were deployed in the desert around Palmyra with minimal training and equipment and were reported to have suffered severe losses. [Security 2020, 22.214.171.124]
The GoS is also recruiting ‘thousands’ of reconciled fighters in the areas taken under their control in 2017-2018, including the governorate of Quneitra. Since early 2019, the fighters have reportedly been transferred to the northern countryside of Hama and Idlib. [Security 2020, 2.13.3]
In Rural Damascus, reports from May 2019 noted that intelligence branches were arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and harassing people in areas retaken from the anti-government groups, among them Eastern Ghouta. Those targeted included former armed and political opposition leaders and former anti-government fighters who had all signed reconciliation agreements with the GoS. [Security 2020, 126.96.36.199]
In summer 2019, reports were received that the Palestine Branch of the military intelligence service had arrested three former rebel commanders in Damascus, who had signed reconciliation agreements with GoS. Other unarmed members of the opposition and their family members had reportedly also been arrested, even though they had all signed reconciliation agreements [Recaptured areas, 188.8.131.52]. It was also reported that the secret police has conducted a campaign of arrests against former opposition figures in southern Syria [Targeting, 1.2.1; Recaptured areas, 184.108.40.206].
Some groups and individuals are denied or do not enter into the reconciliation agreements. This applies to individuals that have ‘Syrian blood on their hands’ as well as those that are considered by GoS to be affiliated with terrorist groups like ISIL or HTS. Another condition of the reconciliation process is that it ‘shall not overturn criminal sentences that are unrelated to current events in Syria, or which are related to the rights of other Syrian civilians’. Those who refuse the reconciliation agreement with GoS, as was the case for around 10 000 persons from Dar’a and Quneitra governorates, were evacuated to areas under the armed opposition’s control in Idlib and northern Aleppo governorates [Recaptured areas, 2.5.3]. It was reported that the GoS considers the fighters who chose passage to Idlib over the ‘reconciliation deals’ to be ‘irreconcilable’, suggesting that it will entertain no such bargain in case Idlib is recaptured [Security 2020, 2.1.3].
There are reports of reconciliation agreements not being observed by the government, for both individuals and communities. There are many reports of returnees having been arrested, detained, harassed or conscripted after they had completed the reconciliation process and received protection papers [Targeting, 1.3.6].
Actions to which individuals under this profile could be exposed are of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution (e.g. assassination, torture, arbitrary arrest).
For members of anti-government armed groups, well-founded fear of persecution would in general be substantiated. In case of reconciliation agreement, well-founded fear of persecution would also be substantiated in general, as those are often broken in practice and the reconciled fighters may furthermore face a risk of targeting by other actors.
Nexus to a reason for persecution
Available information indicates that persecution of this profile is for reasons of (imputed) political opinion.
! Exclusion considerations could be relevant to this profile (see the chapter Exclusion).