‘No such thing as finished’: Residents of north Damascus suburb stay close to home after reconciliation amid fears of arrest, conscription

AMMAN: Saeed a-Shami was nearly 400 km away from his home north of Damascus when his wife went into labor in September. A-Shami, a 32-year-old resident of the suburb of a-Tal, had been arrested at a Syrian regime checkpoint just a week earlier.

The regime soldiers who detained a-Shami in his town did not level any specific charges against him, he says, but released him into the custody of the local military conscription office. From there, he was processed and sent to the frontlines of eastern Syria, even though he says he completed his state-mandated military service almost a decade ago.

Before long, a-Shami was in Deir e-Zor. Being so far from his expectant wife—and then his newborn child—was “difficult to handle psychologically,” a-Shami told Syria Direct this week.

Just weeks into his time in Deir e-Zor, a-Shami cashed in several favors from connections in the army and paid a large bribe to his battalion’s general to attain a transfer from the dangerous, desertous eastern province—where pro-government forces are battling the Islamic State—to the quieter fronts of Syria’s southern Quneitra province, roughly 35 km southwest of his home in a-Tal.

In Quneitra, a-Shami struck a deal with his commander, to whom he pays a flat fee of SP50,000, or roughly $100, per month to avoid military service altogether. Now, he is able to live once more with his family in a-Tal.

But still, a-Shami says he does not feel safe in public and rarely leaves his home, he told Syria Direct.

“I can’t leave,” he said. “I can’t pass through any checkpoints or be seen by police patrols—they could take me back.”

A-Tal on Oct. 9, 2017. Photo courtesy of A-Tal Local Coordination Committee.

Syrian opposition forces took control of the northern Damascus town of a-Tal in 2012. In the years that followed, the suburb underwent periods of blockade and bombardment that finally ended in November 2016 when opposition fighters and local leaders signed a reconciliation agreement with the regime.

An estimated 2,000 rebel fighters and their families left the encircled town for Syria’s opposition-held northwest under last year’s agreement.

By the time a-Tal’s rebels surrendered, the Syrian regime had already coerced five rebel-held areas of Outer Damascus into similar evacuation deals—Darayya, Qudsaya, Moadamiyeh, al-Hameh and Khan a-Sheh. Once a-Tal’s opposition fighters filed into buses and departed, the area returned to regime control.

As part of the reconciliation, regime officials reportedly pledged to completely lift the siege, allow goods to pass freely into the suburb and restore municipal services.

Today, regime checkpoints still surround the northern Damascus suburb, regulating movement in and out. The rebel fighters—some aligned with the FSA, others with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—that once patrolled the streets have been replaced by regime soldiers and members of the pro-government Qalamoun Shield militia.

When the reconciliation deal was reached last year, one sticking point for local negotiators and residents was the clause that stipulated “no person would be arrested for conscription, the army reserves or by the security branches,” Ahmad Bayanouni, a member of a-Tal’s Local Coordination Committee, told Syria Direct from the suburb. “Everyone had a period of six months to resolve any outstanding legal issues.”

But almost a year since the deal, Bayanouni and two local residents of a-Tal told Syria Direct that they are still not able to move freely in the north Damascus suburb amidst near daily reports of arrest and conscription by regime forces in the area.

Qalamoun Shield fighters in a-Tal on Oct. 4. Photo courtesy of Qalamoun Shield Forces: A-Tal Branch.

‘No such thing as finished’

A-Tal is commonly referred to as “the City of a Million Displaced.”

Rebels aligned with Free Syrian Army (FSA) seized a-Tal, a relatively affluent suburb of the Syrian capital with a pre-war population of 100,000, in 2012. Over the next three years, the population swelled as hundreds of thousands of displaced residents arrived from the Damascus and Homs countrysides, fleeing regime bombardment. The overwhelming majority of those displaced to a-Tal remain there today.

Rebel and regime fighters struck an informal truce in 2013 that largely spared the suburb from shelling and airstrikes. Rebels did not target nearby regime positions, while the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied militias did not set foot in the city.

But the agreement collapsed in 2015 after the Syrian government accused opposition fighters of killing a regime soldier who entered the suburb. Pro-government forces, in turn, imposed a strict blockade on the a-Tal suburb, Syria Direct reported at the time, surrounding the roughly five sq. km of rebel-held territory.

Regime representatives and local leaders in a-Tal then began talks with the regime about a ceasefire, with pauses in negotiations punctuated by pro-government shelling of the northern suburb. On the outskirts of the suburb, rebel fighters clashed with regime soldiers and allied Qalamoun Shield Forces.

Residents and negotiators were eager for the siege to be lifted and services to return to the city, but a major concern was the fate of thousands of civilians in the suburb wanted for military service.

“As a young guy, one of the most important terms in the agreement was the one about conscription,” said a-Shami, who settled in a-Tal after fleeing his native Homs province in 2013. “Of course, I had finished my military service about nine years before, but all young men are at risk of being conscripted.”

“The regime promised that those evading military service had six months to enlist,” local council member Bayanouni told Syria Direct, “and they would not be sent to the fronts.”

But the three residents that Syria Direct spoke to for this report all said that regime security forces began to arbitrarily arrest and conscript civilians immediately after rebel forces evacuated the suburb.

“As soon as they got the chance, they began to send them to the frontlines in Deir e-Zor and northern Hama,” Bayanouni told Syria Direct.

The regime also reneged on their promise that security forces would not call up members of the army reserves or draft men who had completed their service, said Bayanouni.  

Even for residents who fulfilled the obligatory two years in the armed forces or those exempted from service, he said, “there’s no such thing as being finished.”

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an international monitoring group, and pro-opposition media outlets have separately reported arbitrary arrests for conscription in a-Tal over the past year.

The Local Coordination Committee for a-Tal posts updates about arrests and security raids in the northern suburb through social media. Committee member Bayanouni estimates that roughly 10-20 civilians—able-bodied men between 18-42—are conscripted each week through raids on homes and arrests at regime-run checkpoints.

For Kareem, a 28-year-old resident who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, the near-daily updates of arbitrary arrests and conscription in a-Tal mean that he does not travel too far from home.

Kareem, who lives in the small village of Maaraba near a-Tal, is exempt from military service under Syrian law as an only child. But he says that he believes this exemption will not keep from from being arrested and drafted at one of the nearby regime checkpoints.

“I’m the type of person who likes to make the rounds,” he tells Syria Direct. Kareem has relatives in a-Tal and used to regularly travel into the suburb from his home on the outskirts to visit them. “But, believe me, for four months I haven’t gone more than a kilometer away from my home.”

Saeed a-Shami, likewise, does not venture far from home since returning from Deir e-Zor and Quneitra. He fears that regime security forces will send him back to his post in Quneitra, separating him again from his wife and newborn child.

“I didn’t involve myself in this war, whether alongside the regime or the opposition,” he tells Syria Direct. “I stayed in a-Tal hoping that I would not be affected because I had done my service.”

 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.