November 4, 2013
By Abdulrahman al-Masri and Kristen Gillespie
AMMAN: Syrians who oppose the government are denouncing a new regime law purporting to give amnesty to military deserters and others who flee mandatory military service as a trap to refresh the ranks of government soldiers.
“The regime is trying any and all methods to make people who are eligible for military service to go, but soldiers continue to defect and some have left Syria,” says former Brigadier General Zaher al-Saket, formerly the head of the Fifth Brigade’s chemical department who defected from the Syrian army in March of this year.
The regime “was about to collapse” in March, al-Saket says, “then they changed from attack operations to defense in order to keep their positions under control.” The army, he says, lacked the soldiers to attack FSA-held territory. The tide turned, the defected officer says, when Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite brigades and Iranian Revolutionary Guards flooded the ranks and gave the regime the force it needed to re-capture cities such as Al-Qusayr.
A funeral for Syrian army soldiers. Photo courtesy of Tishreen
Al-Saket estimates the regime army at 800,000 soldiers, reinforced by roughly 6,000 highly trained Hezbollah fighters, 8,000 Iraqi fighters, 12,000 Iranian fighters and 2,000 Yemeni Shiite Houthis. The FSA and moderate Islamist battalions fighting under its umbrella number about 300,000, al-Saket said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a “general amnesty” on October 29th for men who had failed to complete their mandatory military service and deserters from military service under the condition they surrender within a certain period, reported official news agency SANA. The amnesty does not include those who left military service in order to join opposition ranks.
“The general amnesty is an attempt by the regime to show the West it is compassionate with civilians, meanwhile it continues to shell civilians,” said Mohammed Najeeb Rajab, 38, a lieutenant colonel with the FSA in Homs province.
“The regime is mostly composed of Sunni soldiers and it was pushing them in earlier battles, but after too many were killed, the regime started counting on Alawite soldiers,” Rajab said. “When many Alawite soldiers were killed, Alawite families got angry, hence this amnesty and other laws to bring Sunnis back into the battle,” he said, reflecting the sentiments of other regime opponents interviewed for this article.
The amnesty is the latest in a series of regime moves to enlist further recruits. Defected reserve soldiers told Reuters in September that they and thousands of others have been called up to service. Also in September, the government issued a law banning Syrian men born between 1992 and 1994 from traveling outside the country without written permission from the army’s Conscription Department. In May of this year, the government raised the fee for young men to avoid military service from $5,000 to $15,000.
“Now the regime is very strict about the laws to ensure that young men stay in Syria and have to join the army,” said Taim, 19, a pro-opposition citizen journalist from Damascus who is hiding from the authorities because he refuses to do the mandatory year and a half of military service.
The opposition can smuggle him out of Syria if needed, Taim said. But others “will not be issued passports or travel papers” if they do not serve, he added.
A report in the pro-regime paper Al-Watan last month noted that Hezbollah is recruiting an additional 15,000 fighters to battle rebels in Syria. More soldiers are wanted to fight in the Kalamoun region, close to the Lebanese border, an area currently dominated by Islamist rebels.
Sources close to the Lebanese militia told the paper that Hezbollah plans to attack and disrupt the rebels’ supply routes.
Like Syria Direct on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.