Syrian Arab Army soldier says he pays bribes for furlough: 'I have no other choice'

As soon as Ayman graduated from the University of Aleppo in 2013, he was required by law to complete a year and a half of mandatory military service with the Syrian army.

Ayman, 27, is now in his fifth year with the Syrian Arab Army and mans regime checkpoints in Damascus. Because of the war, he hasn’t been discharged. He is granted short furloughs when he can afford to bribe his commanders to grant them, he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad al-Haj Ali. Ayman withheld his real name for fear of reprisal.

Earlier this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pledged to fight government corruption and “enforce the law on everyone without exception,” state media agency SANA reported. Assad did not specifically comment on the military.

Ayman, the soldier, says a typical furlough request costs him $96—more than six times his monthly salary. His family helps him pay the bribe.

“My father is constantly working to send the money to me.”

Q: You’ve been serving with the Syrian Arab Army since 2013. How many furloughs have you taken since then?

I can’t give any specific numbers, but in the beginning of my service, when I had a six-month training period, I didn’t receive any leave. Afterwards, I had a one-week furlough, and then started my actual military service.

I pay to take leave about every five or six months. Of course, this isn’t a very precise number because it differs from time to time for various reasons—including the security situation in the area where I serve.

One time, I was granted furlough without having to pay a bribe because we had a commander who gave leave to all of the soldiers without making them pay. But he was only with us for three months before he was transferred.

A Syrian Arab Army soldier waits to be transferred on June 10. Photo courtesy of Demand the Discharge of Group 102 From the Syrian Arab Army.  

Q: When was the last time you saw your family back home in Aleppo? How do you keep in touch with them while on duty in Damascus?

The last time I saw my family was during my most recent leave about a month ago. I speak with them almost every day. They always try to get in touch with me to make sure I’m okay. They’re afraid for me.

All we can think about is how we don’t know how long my military service will last. This frightens me. It makes me miss my family constantly. I can’t be with them whenever there are big family events—I’m always gone.

I don’t know how much longer this will last, but my family members are doing whatever they can to make my military service bearable. My father is constantly working and the others are trying their best to send the money to me.

Q: When you get leave, how do you return home to Aleppo? Which issues do you face along the way?

This is even bigger than the problem of obtaining leave. There are many things that frighten me both on the journey home and on my return trip [back to Damascus].

First, there are the military checkpoints. Most of the checkpoints stop soldiers and make them undergo a full inspection—they are worried about defectors. They’ll contact the commander who granted my leave to confirm with him that it’s legitimate. This process usually takes a long time, which makes me take an entire day or two to reach Aleppo.

Then there is the fear of the checkpoints or sections of the road that are controlled by opposition forces. I don’t have a civilian ID—only a military one. If any of them detain me, my future is totally unknown because I’m considered a traitor by them. 

[Ed.: A section of the road Ayman takes from Damascus to Aleppo passes through rural eastern Hama province, where opposition and IS forces control territory immediately adjoining the highway.]

Q: You mentioned that the military leadership is worried about possible defections. Considering your frustration with mandatory military service, have you ever considered defecting in order to see your family more?

I most definitely haven’t considered [defecting], for a number of reasons. If I did, I would never see my family again because they live in regime territory. Right now I hardly ever get to visit them, but at least I still do see them. I would cause many problems for them if I defected.

And where would I go, anyway? All of the surrounding countries have closed their borders, and the areas [of Syria] under opposition control are unlivable in every way.

I’m not happy serving in the military, but I have no other choice.

Q: What do you have to do in order to get your leave from military service?

There is no official way [to request leave]. Most of the time, the commander or military division grants leave, or you go to them and tell them the reason for your request. But that was before the war.

Now, getting leave is a far-fetched dream for Syrian soldiers. You have to have connections or pay a bribe to the commanders.

Most of the time I pay around SP50,000 [$96] for a furlough of five days. In the beginning, I only had to pay SP3,000 [$6]. But with the depreciation of the Syrian pound, and changing commanders, the price has changed. 

What I pay for a furlough differs from other locations. Working at checkpoints is considered the simplest military service—there is very little danger, and it isn’t the same as serving on the frontlines. The food also isn’t too bad. Still, we need to take leave, though that’s just a dream for soldiers stationed on the battlefront. They now have to pay around SP200,000 [$385] in bribes to their commanders, and that’s because of their horrible living conditions, including [a lack of] food, the dangers they face, and a huge shortage of soldiers to man the frontlines.

Q: How do the other soldiers in your unit manage to visit back home?

There are so many stories on this topic. Many soldiers aren’t even able to return home to their families because are in areas taken over by the opposition—such as Idlib and Daraa.

One guy in my unit is from Idlib province and his family lives in rebel territory. He hasn’t seen them in four years. All he can do is chat with them on the Internet because he can’t go there [to Idlib province]. And his family faces constant threats because he is still fighting with the Syrian army.

There are also conscripts who don’t have any money for paying the bribes to get leave.

Of course, this doesn't impact everybody who is in the service. There are respectable commanders who grant soldiers leave in a legitimate and fair manner. But they are pretty rare, unfortunately.

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.