At the hundreds of security checkpoints spread throughout Damascus, regime soldiers pull young men off buses and check IDs, constantly on the lookout for those of military age to conscript and deploy to the frontlines.
Recent tactics like recruiting farmers and men as old as 70 into ‘Self-Defense Divisions’ represent part of this new drive to recruit manpower.
One family of three brothers in Damascus decided early into the revolution “not to take any side.” They are not loyal to Assad, but they did not want to pick up arms against the Syrian regime either, says Khaled, a public-sector employee in the Zablatani district of the capital who earns SP20,000 (around $50) per month.
While flying checkpoints and random ID checks formerly served to find those avoiding mandatory service, “now it includes everyone,” Khaled tells Syria Direct’s Futoun a-Sheikh. Hiding at home, they are running out of options, he says.
“I used to be one of those people who labeled emigrants as traitors, even if they were my friends… But now, we have no other choice.”
Q: What is the situation of young people in Damascus who aren’t loyal to any side?
At the beginning of the revolution, my brothers and I decided we would stay away from the conflict and not take any side. We are not loyal to Assad, but at the same time, like most families in Damascus, we have to pretend to be loyal in order to receive services and stay in our home. Everyone in our position is constantly on guard.
There are three young men in our family. The youngest, who is 23 years old, studies dentistry at the Damascus University. My older brother, who is married with two children, works as a pharmaceutical distributor.
Q: How does the conscription campaign affect the youth in Damascus?
The latest campaign launched by the regime is the most dangerous one yet for us. Since the beginning of the revolution, people have been arrested and conscripted into the reserves, but it was limited only to those who did not complete their military service. Now it includes everyone, even if you have deferment papers. Lately, all we hear is ‘the interests of the nation are more important than anything else.’
All of this has started to change our lives. We no longer dare to go to work or university out of fear. About a month ago my younger brother was arrested. We were only able to get him out of jail by paying a lot of money. Now we are stuck at home, and my mother and sister do all of the household shopping. This situation isn’t unique to us. Most of our friends have been forced to quit their jobs or drop out of university due to fear of flying checkpoints which are used to force people into military service.
Q: What options are available to you right now?
Living a normal life of work or studies is no longer an option. Now there are only three options available to us, and we must choose soon before we run out of options.
The first option is to join the regime and fight with it. To me this isn’t a real option. How could I do that? Joining the regime forces contradicts my beliefs. Everyone who goes with regime forces is guaranteed martyrdom, but without honor. Most of the youth are convinced that the regime is weak. It will not pay us a single lira in return for risking our lives. The regime protects the people from other countries who fight on its behalf.
The second option is to join the opposition in liberated areas. It is not only the groups themselves who are calling on the young men to join them, but also all of our friends and relatives in the liberated areas. They all call us to take refuge in the liberated areas. This choice comes with many dangers. We all have families. How could someone leave his family behind, knowing that regime would kill them if it discovered that he was a revolutionary?
The third option, which is the most logical choice right now, is to travel. What the future looks like no longer matters, because anywhere other than here would be fine. I used to be one of those people who labeled emigrants as traitors, even if they were my friends, and I would end my relationships with them when they left. My argument was, ‘Who will be left if you leave the country?’ But now, we have no other choice.
We haven’t witnessed chaos like this in the capital before. Now all of us, good and bad, meet the same end. Our only value in this country is our bodies, standing on the front lines of the conflict. Now, it doesn’t matter if you were a doctor or a janitor. The only thing that matters is your political stance. Many young people must choose between the first two options, because they cannot afford a plane ticket.