‘No point in fighting’: Damascus youth under the shadow of conscription

Recent defeats, flagging morale and the grim outlook of an intractable war has left the Assad regime scrambling for soldiers to fill the fading ranks of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

Compulsory military service is not new to Syria. Before the outbreak of the current conflict, all Syrian men were required to serve in the SAA for a period of two years, with exemptions and deferrals available for students and those with extenuating family circumstances.

On the surface, this structure has not changed. However, with the regime desperate for new conscripts and young Syrians increasingly keen to avoid what may very well amount to a death sentence, military service in Syria has arguably never been more fraught.

Syria Direct reported last month on the launch of a conscription campaign in Deir e-Zor province to replenish the army’s flagging manpower.

The regime has leaned on conscription to keep numbers up in other provinces as well, including Damascus.

To shed light on the dilemma facing Damascene youth, Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali spoke with “Damascene Rose,” the alias of the spokesperson for the pro-opposition Damascus Media Office, also a student at Damascus University living in a regime-controlled area.

There is a heavy push for conscripts, she says, with arrest campaigns and raids in neighborhoods under government control.

Although many try to evade conscription by any means possible—paying bribes, leaving the country, intentionally failing classes—many find themselves “removed from buses and cars” at checkpoints, conscripted into the army and sent to the front, some “killed only a week or two later.”

State media has predictably shied away from directly discussing the impact of conscription on Damascus youth.

However, this past March the pro-regime Damascus Now news outlet filed a “special investigation” into reports of long lines and wait times at a recruitment office in the Salihiyah neighborhood of Damascus.

Young regime supporters are fed up with war, especially after several years, and many of them now see no point in fighting on any side.”

 In your opinion, why is the Syrian regime carrying out these campaigns now to conscript young Syrians?

Four years have been enough to guarantee the depletion of the regime’s energy and that of its army, especially with the defections in the Syrian army ranks at the beginning of the revolution.

Among other factors, this greatly weakened the regime, and it came to need to conscript young people by any means.

Long lines at a recruitment office in the Salihiyah neighborhood of downtown Damascus. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now

What are the methods the regime uses to conscript young people?

Actually, the means differ from place to place and from city to city. As for Damascus, the beginning of large-scale arrest campaigns last October affected tens of young men of reservist age, and caused many to leave the country for fear of being arrested and turned over to the army.

The regime benefited from those campaigns on a number of fronts. For one, it has made the people of Damascus and other provinces into shields for it on the most dangerous fronts. In many recorded cases, a young man was turned over to the army and killed only a week or two later on one of those violent fronts.

Of course [the regime takes conscripts] through violent means, whether in raids or at the checkpoints while inspecting young people.

These campaigns opened the door to trade and material gain for officers and regime elements, who carried on exploiting the families of those wanted [for military service] and extorting them for money in order to turn a blind eye. It also opened a new door to emigration, and especially illegal emigration, out of fear of arrest.

According to your personal experience, can you describe for us what happens at roadblocks in Damascus to seize young men wanted for military service?

They inspect IDs very carefully. Within Damascus, the regime only inspects young people. At the entries to the capital, they check everyone, and often remove people from buses and cars after discovering that they are of age for compulsory service and do not carry a military postponement, or that they are of age for reserve duty.

What legal means can young people turn to in order to evade military service?

Most of those who are not wanted for military service are either university students or schoolchildren or [carry] an administrative postponement or a breadwinner postponement.

You can review the law related to the matter in order to know in which cases a young man can put off the military. Many young people try for postponement with “connections” through a previous deferment, but that remains a temporary solution, ending after six months or more depending on the [type of] postponement.

Yes, there are those who take bribes to give postponements, but not to look the other way from those wanted for military service. For example, even if a guard at a checkpoint took a bribe, the next might refuse.

The only man [in the family], with no brothers of a similar age, is also exempt from compulsory service.

Many young people have left the country, choosing emigration over military service, and some were forced to leave via smuggling, so as not to be stopped at the borders.

I want to mention that some young people at university deliberately fail some classes in order to retain the right to postpone [service] in order to use all the chances he has to postpone, finding other ways either through connections or by emigrating.

Do only those opposed to the regime evade military service, or do those loyal to the regime also try to avoid it, and why?

Loyalists and opponents alike. Young regime supporters are fed up with war, especially after several years, and many of them now see no point in fighting on any side. In addition to that, it would most likely lead to death, which is what makes them run from it. It is not possible to generalize though, because there are those from the Alawite sect supporting the regime who enlisted to fight in its army.

After the new law for renewing and issuing passports, is it possible for those sought for military service to leave the country or to renew or extend their passports?

Not without connections, [wasta], which are what rule the country presently, and whomever has money and influence can do what he wants.

Have there been any protests or strikes or campaigns about military service in Damascus?

No…that is impossible in a city that has turned into a military barracks.

Are there voluntary conscription centers in the capital? Who are these centers affiliated with?

Yes, there are the so-called “National Defense” centers.

They are like gangs, setting up temporary roadblocks, stopping young people, and carrying out raids.

The National Defense Forces [shabiha] are synonymous with that, given broad powers, and an official card, and they are more faithful to the regime than the Syrian army, because most of them are young people who volunteered in support of Assad, to defend his position and benefit him, and they are mostly Alawites and Shiites. There are many of these centers in Damascus. 

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.