Despite government assurances, fears of conscription among young East Ghoutans sour hopes for return to university

Downtown Damascus in July. Louai Beshara/AFP.

AMMAN: Nasser was into his third year of a business and economics degree at Damascus University in 2012 when battles between rebel and pro-government forces erupted around the Syrian capital.

With just one more year left before graduation, Nasser—who lives in the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus—could no longer attend class for fear of street clashes or bombardment.

But it was in 2013 that he finally gave up all hopes of returning to university to finish his studies after Syrian pro-government forces encircled the rebel-held East Ghouta pocket, locking Nasser and hundreds of thousands of other residents into a devastating siege that would go on for five years. He requested that his full name be withheld in this report for fears of government reprisals.

Under Syrian law, university students who go more than one year without attending classes are not eligible to graduate from the country’s state-run universities. However, a government decree issued in June appeared to give prospective students a new chance at higher education, stating that those recently “freed from besieged areas” could finish their degrees—despite having been cut off from government-held territory for several years.

Syria Direct reported at the time that the decree had offered a cautious hope for young East Ghoutans who wanted to finally obtain their diplomas after years under siege.

But Nasser, now 27, says the decree does little to actually help get him back into university. According to him and four other prospective students from East Ghouta, one key guarantee is missing from the measure—any sort of provision allowing them to postpone the mandatory, two-year military conscription service that is required of all Syrian men aged 18 to 42. That is contributing to fears and growing rumors that authorities in Damascus may simply start rounding up East Ghouta’s young men for military service by the end of September, regardless of whether or not they have already enrolled.

Despite growing talk of a Damascus in transition from war to peace, the lack of clarity in the decree demonstrates just one of the many legal complexities that have followed reconciliation in the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs, as residents try to move forward with their lives while at the same time avoiding setbacks, risks and security threats.

“It’s impossible for me to go outside [East Ghouta] without any sort of provision in place,” Nasser tells Syria Direct from his hometown of Douma. “They could take me into the army at the first checkpoint I come across.”

According to several prospective students from East Ghouta, "news has been spreading” in recent weeks that the Syrian government is not issuing official postponement papers for young men hoping to register for university in Damascus for the first time, let alone those halfway through their studies when the siege cut them off from the outside world and their chances of education with it.

After enduring five years of deadly siege and bombardment by pro-government forces and allied militias, and with the Syrian army gearing up for an offensive on the country’s rebel-held northwest, young men from East Ghouta are increasingly desperate to avoid government military service.

One perhaps glaring roadblock remains: in East Ghouta, no office has yet been opened by the Syrian government for handling military service postponement. Even if young men wanted to process paperwork for postponement, they simply can’t.

“Until now, the conscription directorate hasn’t returned [to East Ghouta], or anything else connected to military postponement due to [higher] education,” one Syrian military official told Syria Direct this week, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

“Military reconciliation is not possible without this,” the official added.

A source close to the government in Douma also told Syria Direct that, so far, there hasn’t been “any [military] postponement for East Ghouta students.” The source requested anonymity for security reasons.

Officials from Syria’s education and defense ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

The fact that there is no conscription office means “no [university] students from East Ghouta” have so far been granted military postponement documents since the government released its June decree, says Thaer Hijazi, who monitors the Damascus suburbs for the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian rights watchdog that previously had an office in Douma.

According to Hijazi, that includes young men “who were able to sign up for university but were not granted military postponement.”

Samer Yasseen, one young East Ghouta resident, saw the roadblocks coming. In Syria Direct’s previous report on East Ghouta students, Yasseen stood out as one of the only prospective students interviewed who expressed clear doubts about the registration process—and the inherent risks involved for young men like him.

A 27-year-old from Douma, one of the largest and most important cities in the formerly besieged eastern suburbs, Yasseen earned his high school diploma in 2012—the year before the Syrian government’s devastating siege over East Ghouta began.

Trapped, Yasseen could not cross over government-imposed siege lines to pursue a university degree in Damascus, despite living just 12 kilometers from the center of the capital. He instead continued his studies via an online, unaccredited university course—or at least when internet connection and pauses in the bombing allowed.

But despite the fact that Yasseen now has a chance—at least on paper—to officially register and return to this studies, he feels the risks involved outweigh the benefits.

Like Nasser, he is worried about crossing the slew of government checkpoints waiting for him on the road into central Damascus, where he must go to enroll for a spot in a state-run university.

“Nothing is clear” about the government’s handling of East Ghouta men hoping to sign up for university, Yasseen tells Syria Direct.

The 27-year-old is planning to wait it out in Douma for any sign that it will be safe for him to enroll. However, he still has his doubts.

“All of us [male students] are linked by a shared factor,” Yasseen says. “That’s military service.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.