Out of retirement and manning a checkpoint, SAA Fifth Corps volunteer: ‘It’s better than sitting at home’

In Syria, as in much of the rest of the world, many retirees take up new hobbies or jobs to occupy their free time.

But when Abu Jamal, a 57-year-old Damascus resident, found himself bored and listless, sitting at home two years after retiring from his job in customs on the border between Syria and Lebanon, he decided to volunteer for the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

“I didn’t have anything to do,” Abu Jamal tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali. “So I said to myself, why not join the army and defend my country, rather than sitting at home?”

That was three months ago. Now, he works at a checkpoint in the capital and oversees the conscripted soldiers there.

Abu Jamal joined the Baath Brigade, a unit made up of Baath party members within the SAA’s Fifth Assault Corps. The General Command of the Syrian Army announced the formation of the Fifth Corps in November 2016, as the first official volunteer-based military force. Those who join receive a monthly salary, and deserters who join receive amnesty.

The Fifth Corps Baath Brigade on March 14. Photo courtesy of Baath Brigades – Syrian Region.

It is not immediately clear how many people have joined the Fifth Corps since November or who the volunteers are. However, a number do appear to be men over the age of 42, which is the upper limit of mandatory military service in Syria.

Pictures posted online of the graduation of Abu Jamal’s unit from training on March 14 show a number of men who appear to be above the age of 50.

“There are many men my age,” says Abu Jamal.

Q: You are older than 42, so you are not wanted for service in the military or reserves. Why did you voluntarily enlist?

I had many reasons. For one thing, the Syrian army needs more soldiers because of the large fronts where there are battles right now. My personal motivation was to defend my nation against the conspiracies against it.

I am also physically and mentally fit for military service. Why not join the army? After retiring from working at customs [on the Lebanese-Syrian border], I didn’t have anything to do. So I said to myself, why not join the army and defend my country, rather than sitting at home?

Q: What did you do before joining the Fifth Corps? What was your life like?

I worked in customs before retiring two years ago, at age 55. My hours alternated between morning and evening, so I would spend the rest of the day with my family and grandchildren, or with my friends at cafés. I live with my wife and son, who is married with two children. I would play with my grandchildren sometimes.

But lately, I started to feel bored, mentally exhausted from sitting at home without work or anything to spend my time on. My physical health is very good, thank God. I exercised regularly for the past 20 years.

Q: What do your friends and family think about your decision to voluntarily enlist?

My family had conflicting opinions about this matter. To this day, my wife rejects it. She says I’m too old to serve, and she is afraid for my physical well-being.

My children were also against it at first. Then, they saw how my mental state improved from how it was after I retired and sat at home doing nothing. When they saw that, they supported me.

As for my friends, I talk to them about my service and encourage them to volunteer for the army every time I talk with them. I will try to convince them to do so, first and foremost to serve the nation, but also to stay in good health. It is better than sitting at home and in cafes.

 Abu Jamal's unit graduates from training on March 14.Photo courtesy of Baath Brigades – Syrian Region.

Q: There appear to be a number of men between the ages of 50 and 70 years old in the Fifth Corps Baath Brigade. Do you feel that there is a kind of solidarity among you because you are from similar generations?

This was one of the reasons that I joined the Corps. There are many men my age. I can relate to them and talk about shared issues, especially because we are in military service voluntarily—we were not forced to join.

In other words, we are a cohesive group and mentally relaxed. For this reason we have become friends. There is no pressure.

I have more friends now, after volunteering. I got to know them through the Corps. We have shared concerns, in politics and daily life, and we think the same way. We look at things in a way that is different from the current generation.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about what you do now, on a daily basis?

I am currently responsible for one of the checkpoints in Damascus during the day. My shift starts at 7AM and ends at 6PM. My job is to supervise the soldiers at the checkpoint.

As for the other personnel, they are sorted out according to their specialties and capabilities. Some are sent to the fighting fronts in other provinces, and some are at the checkpoints. Some work in the military hospitals, if they have medical degrees. Others work in maintenance and many other specializations, depending on the individual.

I still go out with my friends after my shift or on my days off. We go out to the cafes and restaurants, or visit each other like before I joined the military.

Q: Have you had any trouble keeping up with the physical demands of military life?

Of course, there are hardships. When I first volunteered, we had military training and lessons, since soldiers need strong bodies. But after the first month went by, I got used to it, and it became enjoyable.

Some of the volunteers were not able to complete the training and were told they were not physically up to the task.

In Syria, military service is mandatory for young men. That means that all of us in the Corps had some military experience from that time.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.