YPG draft evaders on the run after amnesty: ‘Why would I fight to defend Arab lands?’

AMMAN: Kurdish authorities in northern Al-Hasakah province say a new amnesty deal will drop penalties for draft dodgers who register for military service, the latest attempt to “build up a force to resist terrorists,” a Self-Administration official tells Syria Direct.

Military service in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) became mandatory in 2014 for all men aged 18 to 30 living under the de facto autonomous Self-Administration in northern Syria.

In accordance with last week’s amnesty decree, Defense Ministry spokesman Kamal Akif says YPG authorities dropped the three-month additional enlistment term for draft evaders from the end of the mandatory nine-month tour to encourage hundreds of eligible men to turn themselves in.

“We want to use the amnesty to give draft evaders a chance to join their [required] military units,” Akif tells Syria Direct.

Kurdish authorities issued the amnesty “in order to form a military that can protect Rojava from terrorists,” Akif says. “This is a moral and patriotic duty.”

The decree comes as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group consisting of the YPG and other rebel forces, announced Sunday after months of rumors that they launched an offensive to surround and, eventually, seize the Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.

 YPG forces in Al-Hasakah province. Photo courtesy of the Kurdish Self Administration

It is precisely this kind of far-reaching campaign outside the Self-Administration’s territory that two draft evaders tell Syria Direct they intend to avoid.

Both Nayyef and Saleh say their draft evasion, even after the amnesty deal went into effect, is ideological. The American-led campaign to seize the provincial capital of Raqqa—which American military officials have said will include YPG forces—doesn’t concern them, they say.  

“I’m Kurdish. Why would I go and serve alongside a force that, at its core, is not defending Kurdish land?” Saleh asks, referring to Raqqa city.

Akif, the Kurdish defense spokesman, says it is the Self-Administration’s responsibility to fight the Islamic State.

“Rojava is facing IS and other extremist groups, so it is the moral and holy duty of the defense forces to protect this land.”

Speaking from Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, draft evader Saleh says he will not return home to turn himself in to the YPG under the new amnesty. “Why would I fight to defend Arab lands?” he asks

A second draft evader cites a lack of trust toward the Self-Administration, expressing doubt about the amnesty.

“We don’t even know whether the new regulations will actually be implemented,” Nayyef, a civil-society activist in the YPG-controlled town of Amouda, tells Syria Direct. Nayyef, a Kurd, has been hiding from Kurdish authorities for more than a year since he learned he had been drafted into the YPG. He gave only his first name, citing his fear of reprisal from Kurdish authorities.

Draft dodgers who join up “still have no idea when they will return home,” he says.

“I have to avoid security forces and checkpoints so that I don’t get arrested and forced into service,” says the 28-year-old. “Ever since police began conducting raids on my home [looking for me], I’ve had to go into hiding. Sometimes I take cover in another village near Amouda, or in homes that aren’t being raided.”

Nayyef isn’t alone. “Every day in my city, draftees are abducted from their homes,” Saleh, who fled last week to northern Iraq, tells Syria Direct.

The UNHCR counts more than 200,000 Syrian refugees in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Hundreds of Syrians there have demonstrated against the YPG’s mandatory conscription, as well as other alleged abuses by the Self-Administration, Syria Direct previously reported.

Saleh, 28, a former shepherd who has evaded military service since it became mandatory in 2014, travelled on foot from his home city of Al-Malakiah in Al-Hasakah province’s northeastern reaches after Kurdish security forces searched his home for him.

Detained by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces after his arrival in Iraqi Kurdistan, he says he is now trapped in the sprawling Domiz refugee camp, alone and unwilling to return home to Syria for fear of arrest by Self-Administration authorities. Nayef says that that all he can do is wait, as his wife and two daughters remain in Al-Malikiah.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do in Kurdistan.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

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.