AMMAN — Youssef al-Hamad had no choice but to perform mandatory military service after his attempt to resume his studies at Damascus University failed.
Al-Hamad, 27-years-old, dropped out of the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Damascus University in mid-2013 to join one of the armed opposition groups in Syria’s southern Daraa province. He later joined several factions, eventually ending up in Jabhat al-Nusra, which became known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July 2016. Towards the end of 2016, al-Hamad decided to leave the group to pursue his personal life as a civilian.
Following the Russian-sponsored Reconciliation Agreements between the regime and the opposition in southern Syria in July 2018, al-Hamad applied for a deferral of his military conscription in the city of Al-Sanamayn in order to continue his university studies after a five-year break. His application, however, was rejected, meaning that he would be stopped and conscripted at the first government military or security checkpoint he encountered.
Fearing this possibility, al-Hamad voluntarily enrolled in military service in hopes that afterward he would “continue his university studies and pursue his future and [return] to the little shop that provides him and his family with income,” a source close to al-Hamad told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity.
Al-Hamad, according to the same source, spent nearly a year and nine months with the government forces moving between the frontlines in Idlib and Hama countrysides and the Syrian desert before a military patrol took him from his military unit to an unknown location last November.
Since then, al-Hamad’s family has been searching for their son, who was “arrested for no known reason.” His father has repeatedly visited his son’s military unit. The commanding officer claimed that “he did not know the reason behind [al-Hamad’s] arrest and did not know what intelligence branch he has been taken to,” adding that “had the arrest been a result of a military offense he would be with the military police, in which case his whereabouts would be known and visiting would be allowed.” The source said the officer assured al-Hamad’s father that his son did not commit any military offense that would permit the military police to arrest him.
While continuing to search for their son in different security and military agencies, relying on “wastas” and “bribery,” al-Hamad’s family believes that the most likely reason behind their son’s arrest is his history with the “opposition and Jabhat al-Nusra, despite having left them years before the Reconciliation.” He is one of tens of former opposition members in southern Syria who were conscripted to the military or volunteered with the government forces only to be forcibly disappeared.
The number of former opposition members and defectors from the regime’s forces who were forcibly disappeared since the Reconciliation is estimated to be around 92 in southern Syria, while the number of people who have been killed under torture during the same time and whose families were notified of their death has reached 31, Omar al-Hariri, Director of the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, told Syria Direct.
Death or enforced disappearance
In August, 34-year-old Osama’s family lost contact with him nine months after he was conscripted to the military reserve in the eastern countryside of Idlib. Osama’s brother told Syria Direct that at first the family thought that “problems with internet connectivity or a military mission had prevented him from calling them.” However, after ten days, “the family felt that something bad had happened to him,” which pushed them to call the officer responsible for him, who told them that Osama had been arrested by the Fourth Division’s security office for unknown reasons.
Osama’s arrest, according to his brother, “may be related to him having previously worked with the Free Syrian Army” for more than five years in northern Daraa until he and his faction took part in the Reconciliation process in July 2018.
According to two persons from Osama’s town in northern Daraa, he was one of four from the town arrested by unknown groups affiliated with the Assad regime after joining government and security forces after the Reconciliation.
In the case of Muhammad Abdulatif, a 29-year-old from the countryside of Quneitra province, his family was notified of his death in December, a year after he disappeared from his military unit in southern Aleppo, according to a source close to the family.
Abdulatif was a field commander in one of the small opposition factions in Quneitra before joining the Reconciliation processes, after which he joined the military service.
Fuel for the war
Two former opposition members who spoke to Syria Direct recalled that after joining the government forces, they were deployed to the frontlines against the opposition in Idlib and Hama countrysides and ISIS in the Syrian desert.
“We were put between two rifles, one behind us and one in front of us: either you fight, or you get killed,” Ahmad Bassam, 26-years-old, recalled after being transferred to Aleppo’s western countryside. “Several times, we were left to face Turkish strikes and endure shortages in supplies and food as if we, members of the Reconciliation, were fuel for this war whom they wanted to get rid of. We were always suspicious to them.”
In 2020, 76 persons from Daraa province were killed after being conscripted to the military under the government forces and taking part in military operations across different Syrian provinces, according to a report by Houran Free League, an opposition-affiliated media organization.
Amnesties do not protect defectors
Since the Reconciliation Agreements, Damascus has forcibly disappeared and killed many defectors from government forces and intelligence services who had taken part in the Reconciliation processes in southern Syria. Damascus has not kept the promises it made in the agreements or the amnesties issued by Bashar al-Assad, which included pardons for defectors and guarantees that they would not be prosecuted and arrested.
The Syrian Military Code does not mention the term “defector” but rather the act of “fleeing,” which is criminalized and can be punishable by death according to Paragraph 1 of Article 102 of the Syrian Military Penal Law Number 61 of 1950. Paragraph 2 states that “In case of fleeing upon facing the enemy, he shall be liable to detention for life. If the fugitive is an officer, he shall be punished by hard labor life imprisonment and shall be dismissed from service in all cases.”
According to Houran Free League, following the 2018 Reconciliation Agreements, “branches of the security services arrested around 200 defectors from the province over various times and sent them to the military police building in Qaboun, a neighborhood in the capital Damascus, under the pretense that they would be later allocated to their former military units.” However, “tens of them were disappeared in Assad’s prisons and the families of 21 men were notified that they had died under torture.”
According to the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, in 2020 alone, 15 former defectors were killed “under torture and unlawful arrests in the regime’s prisons after turning themselves in and joining the Reconciliation Agreements.” The victims were defectors from five different ranks: conscript, major, colonel, police officer, and volunteer in the intelligence services.
In November and December alone, Syria Direct tracked the killing of six defectors from Daraa province who were arrested by the regime’s intelligence services after turning themselves in to take advantage of the amnesties. Damascus notified their families of their death but delivered just some of the bodies of those killed.
Delivering the bodies
On November 21, in what was considered a precedent, Damascus delivered the body of an officer who had defected from the Syrian Ministry of Interior to his family in the town of Samad in eastern Daraa, two years after he was arrested.
Captain Moath Ata al-Smadi defected from the police in 2012. According to opposition-affiliated media, al-Samadi turned himself in to the Political Security Branch in Daraa after the presidential amnesty of defectors was issued after the 2018 Reconciliation Agreements in southern Syria. However, he ended up in the notorious Sednaya Military Prison.
On a different occasion, Damascus delivered Muhannad Muhammad al-Ahmad’s body to his family in Jamlah village in western Daraa on December 2, two years after his arrest. Al-Ahmad, a 24-year-old, was arrested at the end of 2018 after volunteering with the police. He was arrested during a training course at the Ministry of Interior and taken to Raid Branch 215 in Damascus and later to Sednaya Military Prison. His family received his body at Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus and found it covered with burn marks and signs of torture. Before 2018, al-Ahmad had worked in opposition-affiliated field hospitals in Daraa.
According to local opposition-affiliated media, during 2020, Damascus delivered the bodies of 30 defectors, all of whom had taken part in the reconciliation processes.
Apart from the suffering of those forcibly disappeared and their families, concealing the fate of those detained is a source of income for officers and members of the Assad regime. For example, Osama’s brother said his family has paid “two million Syrian liras so far, and we still do not know anything about him.”
*All sources have been given pseudonyms to protect them and their families.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Ahmad Elamine.