When Alaa Ahmed, a 36-year-old employee at Damascus University, received a notice to report for military reserve duty last December, he felt like his “life had ended.”
Ahmed had already completed his two-year mandatory military service years ago, but Syrian men can be called back up until the age of 42.
Facing a shortage of manpower, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is calling men such as Ahmed, who previously completed and were discharged from mandatory military service, into the reserves.
Even before the war, men aged 18-42 were required to serve in the army for two years, with exemptions and deferrals only available for students and those with extenuating family circumstances, medical conditions or connections.
Today, reserve duty means active duty.
“Everyone I know who was called to the reserves is now posted at a checkpoint, on the frontlines or dead,” Ahmed tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.
Facing these choices, thousands of young Syrian men have gone into hiding or fled the country. In June, pro-opposition Syrian news site Zaman al-Wasl leaked a list of 500,000 Syrian men, including reservists, wanted for military service.
To avoid fighting in a war where “it’s not clear who’s right or who’s wrong,” Ahmed bribed a diplomatic official SP6 million ($28,000) to expunge his name from the reserves list.
Q: How did your family react when you were called for reserve duty? What did you do?
I had been married for less than one month when I was called for reserve duty. I didn’t know what to do. My family and wife were devastated. When I looked at into their eyes, I felt like I was already dead, from the intensity of their grief.
When I received the notice, I felt like my life had ended. This piece of paper was the end of me. If I joined the reserves, I would serve until the war ended, or until I died.
I decided to go to Turkey, but before I left I asked one of my relatives to run a security check on my name. Was it listed at highway checkpoints or the airport as wanted for military service?
My relative confirmed that my name was on the list of those wanted for the reserves, so I couldn’t cross through checkpoints in order to leave the country to Turkey.
I had a friend whose father works in the diplomatic corps—he can free a man sentenced to death. I visited my friend and explained the situation. He told me not to worry, he could easily help me, but it will cost me. I told him that I didn’t have a problem with paying.
“No to military service in an army that kills its own people.” Poster from a 2014 campaign in Suwayda government against military service. Photo courtesy of The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution.
Q: How did you pay the money? How could you afford it?
In Syria, it is not just anyone who can get someone out of military service. You have to hold a respected place in the diplomatic field.
After I made an appointment with the diplomatic official, he only asked for SP6 million ($28,000), since I’m his son’s friend and he wanted to help me.
The agreement was that, after my friend’s father removed my name from the reserve duty list, I would transfer the money to his bank account.
My family is well-off, so we didn’t think SP6 million was that much. But for middle-class families, this is a huge amount that can’t be paid, especially in these war-time conditions.
Q: Were you afraid that this was a trap?
I wasn’t afraid that this was a trap and didn’t hesitate since the SP6 million was a small amount that didn’t account for 1 percent of my friend’s father’s wealth.
Q: You paid SP6 million instead of serving the country that you live in?
The person who decides to serve in the military has a reason, a goal that drives him. He’s convinced in what he’s doing.
As for me, I’m not convinced by the war or the revolution. I’m afraid for my life in the midst of this war where it’s not clear who’s right or who’s wrong. And we, the Syrian people, are the cheapest things in this conflict.
That’s why I paid SP6 million ($28,000) instead of losing my life. If I fought with the army now, I would serve until the war ends, or die first. If I died, regime supporters will consider me a martyr and the opposition will regard me as a corpse.
To avoid this, I paid the money to secure my life. Now, I go to work every day and no one says anything.
We Syrians are stuck between a rock and a hard place, both of which lead to death. If, from the beginning of the revolution, I had supported a certain side, then I must respect my decision by fighting.
Q: You served in the army before. What changed?
Yes, I served in the army for a year and a half. When I served, there wasn’t heavy fighting of active front lines. I was a lieutenant in an administrative position.
: During his time at the university, Ahmed attended a 15-25 day military training camp each summer, which was counted for six months of his two-year military service.]
But now things are different. This time, I’d be fighting on the front lines. As reservists, we don’t have experience or competence. I’d pay everything I have rather than join the army.
Just because I’m still in Syria and living in regime territory doesn’t mean that I support the regime. I’m neutral. I don’t support the regime or the Free Syrian Army or the divisions that Syria has experienced. I’m not the only one who has this opinion.
The peaceful demonstrations and protests made the world think that every Syrian is either a supporter or a dissident, depending on where he lives or who controls his town.
I don’t accept this mentality. I only want to stay in my country; I don’t want to leave.
Q: Why do you think the regime is enlisting reservists for active duty?
The regime has lost many soldiers during the revolution and its battles with the opposition. There’s a shortage of soldiers.
The regime is trying to meet its needs in combat zones. Everyone I know who served in the reserves is now posted at a checkpoint, on the frontlines or dead.