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As losses mount in Idlib, Damascus sends conscripts from “reconciled” areas to the front

The city of Douma in East Ghouta mourned the loss of five of its residents, killed while fighting alongside government forces and their allied militias in Idlib

4 March 2020

AMMAN—In the past few days, the city of Douma in East Ghouta mourned the loss of five of its residents, killed while fighting alongside government forces and their allied militias in Idlib province, northwest Syria. All men “were drafted into compulsory and reserve services,” a source in the city told Syria Direct, requesting to remain anonymous for security reasons.

It’s not the first time that East Ghouta, an area which includes Douma, has suffered losses as a result of the conscription orders instituted by the government two years ago. 

The Russian-brokered agreement of March 2018, which allowed the government forces to capture East Ghouta, offered to “reconcile the status” of the men living in the formerly-opposition held territory with the regime. Consequently, many youths “refused to leave [to northern Syria] and chose, instead, to seek a settlement,” the source said, pointing to the fact that those who stayed risked conscription. 

But as Turkey launched “Operation Spring Shield” on March 1 and intensified its attacks against positions held by the Syrian government and its allied militias, residents of the “reconciliation areas” have become more afraid that they or their relatives will be thrust into battles “that they have no training in or conviction for,” Omar al-Homsi (pseudonym) told Syria Direct

Al-Homsi, whose brother was among those conscripted into government forces, added that “most of the [conscripted men] are with the revolution, but they preferred to stay. Later, they were sent to the frontlines without training, as if they were just being sent to death.”

Still, al-Homsi’s brother is considered to be lucky, because “we were able to intervene by paying a monthly sum to the officer responsible for him, who then makes sure that he stays inside the military barracks in Aleppo.” Others, however, can’t afford the same.

“The regime is responsible for their death, but the other side [the opposition], also wronged them by insulting them or calling them traitors, despite knowing that they were forced to fight,” he said.

No escape from the fighting

As per the 2018 Russian-brokered agreement, the men of East Ghouta who were obligated to serve in the military were granted six months to enlist.

While the government did not abide by the time limit, some men decided to join the government forces immediately, according to a member of the government forces conscripted from Douma who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. 

“Self-registration can make the [military] service easier and keep the person away from the hot areas,” he said. “I registered three months after the government forces entered Ghouta. During my service, I moved to more than one province, including Latakia, but I was never forced to take part in the fighting on the frontlines until now,” he said. His experience was in contrast to those who “tried to get more time to enroll were caught at checkpoints and sent directly to the frontlines,” according to the same source. 

This was confirmed by another source, whose relative who was similarly caught then deployed to Idlib. 

“By the time the person caught at the checkpoints knows where he is [going], and what he will be forced to do, it will be too late. He cannot change anything unless his family has connections to influential people,” the source explained. 

Quoting his relative, the source said that “a large number of conscripted soldiers who have been involved in battles in Saraqeb and Nayrab were killed during the recent fighting,” confirming that most of them “were from the reconciled areas.”

As such, in addition to the precautionary measures that residents took while settling their status with the regime for military service in East Ghouta, the recent military developments and the arrival of corpses in Douma “prompted us to isolate ourselves,” a resident who spoke under the condition of anonymity told Syria Direct.

The resident was a student at Damascus University before he was forced to drop-out during the siege of East Ghouta by government forces. He has since remained in East Ghouta in hope of returning to his classes. Although a government decision in June 2018 allowed those military-age students whose university studies had been interrupted for more than a year to re-enroll in university, he could not “obtain an educational waiver,” which would have delayed his military service.

“Since the entry of the regime into Ghouta, I have not been to Damascus, which is only a few kilometers away, because I was afraid of conscription. But now, even moving within my own city has become difficult,” he said.

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder.

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