AMMAN: Kurdish forces in northern Syria are conscripting residents into “self-defense forces” despite local opposition, civilians and Kurdish officials tell Syria Direct, with tribal leaders in several Arab-majority cities intervening to stop the policy.
The governing body of Rojava, the Kurdish-majority territories in Syria’s north, reserves the right to conscript able-bodied men above the age of 18 for nine months of “self-defense duty.” The law applies to all Syrian and foreign nationals residing in Self-Administration-run areas, Kurdish and Arab alike, according to the Legislative Assembly’s website.
The Self-Administration applies different policies for military service across the various regions under its control. In major, Kurdish-majority cities in Syria’s north, local police sometimes search for men avoiding the draft, said one Kurdish soldier, who is now completing his mandatory service in Al-Hasakah city.
In Tabqa and Manbij—two Arab-majority cities captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the Islamic State in the past year and a half—local Self-Administration officials now keep a volunteer-only policy after pressure by local notables and tribal leaders.
On Sunday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces arrested—and later released—at least half a dozen men for military service, said Muadh, a Manbij resident who was detained.
“We were drinking tea in the street when [the SDF] came in armored vehicles,” he told Syria Direct. “They detained me and five others.”
Muadh said that armed fighters from the SDF threw his friends into the vehicles. When he tried to flee, one of the men pointed a gun at his head and threatened to pull the trigger. Later that day, the armed men took Muadh and the other captives to a prison in Manbij.
Muadh, along with the other detainees, were freed in batches over the next 24 hours, he said.
Members of the Manbij Self Defense Forces. Photo courtesy of the Manbij Military Council.
Qasim Ramo, the head of Manbij’s recently established Self-Defense Duty Center, told Syria Direct that joining the self-defense forces is “on a volunteer basis, not mandatory.”
On November 5, the Self-Administration opened the Self-Defense Duty Center in Manbij “for all those desiring to join,” Ramo said. “People began coming by the dozens—on their own.”
Muadh, along with a Self-Administration official in SDF-controlled Tabqa city, told Syria Direct that joining the Self-Defense Forces was mandatory until local Arab tribes met with Kurdish officials in Manbij earlier this week. After negotiations between the two groups, enlistment in the Self-Defense Forces in Manbij became voluntary.
“Tribalism is strong [in Manbij],” said Muadh. “The SDF can’t make the tribes bow down to them.”
For Muadh, a member of Manbij’s Arab population, fighting alongside Kurdish forces could mean clashing with other Arab forces in the area. Turkish-backed rebel factions control territory roughly a dozen kilometers north of Manbij and have previously clashed with Kurdish forces.
In Tabqa, local tribal leaders met with SDF and Self-Administration officials on Monday, to change the selective service policy in the area, said Muhammad Ali Khaled, the co-chairman of the Tabqa Defense Committee.
“We changed [military service] from mandatory to voluntary,” Khaled told Syria Direct. No conscription will take place “so long as the tribal sheikhs can secure the men necessary to protect Tabqa and its countryside.”
The decision came after dozens of men in Tabqa were detained for selective service over the weekend, local news outlets reported at the time.
“They were conscripted for self-defense duty—this can’t be called arrest,” said defense committee co-chair Khaled.
Self-defense duty does not entail fighting on the frontlines with the Islamic State, he added. Rather, recruits “guard the borders of their region only.”
“Everyone has to do their duty.”
With additional reporting by Ayham Murad.
This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.