Six years ago, a 22-year-old Syrian studying law at university began his mandatory military service, expecting to spend a year and a half in the armed forces before returning to regular life.
Today, Ali, not his real name, is 28, and still serving in the Syrian Arab Army, four years past the end of his mandatory service.
Ali is one of several soldiers behind the “Demand to Discharge Group 102 from the Syrian Arab Army” Facebook page for servicemen who enlisted in 2010 remain so today.
“We have the right to be discharged,” Ali, speaking under condition of anonymity, tells Syria Direct’s Muhammad al-Haj Ali. “We just want our voice and the voice of every soldier who has [served] for more than five or six years to be heard.”
Formed in 2014, the Group 102 page and an accompanying Facebook group have a combined following of more than 13,000 users. (See Syria Direct’s previous coverage of the group here and here.)
“Those who contact us are brothers in arms who pass along their complaints and concerns,” says Ali. Others come to the page “accusing us of treason,” he adds.
For now, Ali and others like him remain trapped in military service.
“My ambition used to be to finish studying law at the university, marry and build a family,” says Ali. “Now, I just want the war to end.”
Q: Talk about the consequences of remaining on active duty in the Syrian army for the past four years of war?
Our salaries only get us through half a month. There are married soldiers who have to pay rent, and it isn’t cheap. Abject poverty is the worst nightmare that we face.
It’s also been impossible to continue our educations. Some of us enlisted before finishing our studies in the hope of serving and studying at the same time, but since the war broke out this has been impossible.
We also spend long periods away from our families, and sometimes can’t contact them.
Q: What motivated you to establish this page and group?
First of all, the lack of a discharge except through bribes or connections. There are scores of military-aged young men who delay [their service] and have been given permission to travel. Why? Isn’t this their homeland as well, or is it only ours?
Did you know that some salaries in the army, and mine is one of them, are no more than SP25,000 (approx. $132) a month? In comparison, the National Defense [militias] and other [groups working alongside the Syrian Arab Army] receive SP50,000 (approx. $265) and above. They also get leave every month or so, and serve near their homes while we get five days of leave every six months.
We founded this page for a number of reasons, but not from a lack of love for the homeland and its defense. Isn’t six years of service enough?
Q: What type of reforms are you requesting from the president and government officials regarding the conditions of those serving in the Syrian military?
In order to ensure the equal distribution of national duties, it is every soldier’s right, whether in the reserves or active duty, to know that there is a specified, pre-determined term of service.
The 102nd is entering its sixth year of service, while at the same time there are families with five sons, none of whom are in the military. We have the right to be discharged.
Our second request is that legislation be passed to strengthen the military judicial system and provide soldiers with basic protection against infringements on their rights.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of living conditions and salaries. If you were to compare between us [soldiers] and any government employee in terms of the hours and nature of the work, you would see a huge difference.
Why are service members given worse salaries than others in the public sector? Why aren’t soldiers in the army paid the minimum [needed] for the current cost of living?
Q: Your Facebook page has a wide following. Do you believe that your requests have reached the pertinent authorities?
I’m sorry that this is the answer, but our requests are falling on deaf ears, which in a sense has led to the marginalization of the Syrian army.
This matter affects the entire country, not just soldiers. The Syrian army is the sole guarantor of Syria’s security and sovereignty.
We are not criticizing any organization working alongside the army [such as volunteer militias such as the National Defense Forces, Self-Defense Divisions, et cetera].
However, the army is being denied the privileges of other organizations [whose members receive higher pay and are at least in theory free to stop fighting if they choose].
Q: Have any of your requests been implemented? Has anyone contacted you to coordinate about some of these problems?
Recently daily rations were increased by 25 percent, a negligible amount. Before that, we were given a monthly bonus of SP10,000 (approx. $53), which is not enough to improve our situation because a soldier’s salary is no more than SP30,000 (approx. $160).
Nobody [official] has contacted us at all. Those who contact us [on Facebook] are brothers in arms who pass along their complaints and concerns, or people accusing us of treason.
You are the first media outlet to contact us.
Q: Are you or the others who run the page afraid of backlash or problems in the future because of it? If so, why do you continue?
Take a look at the posts on the page. We’re considered traitors because we’ve demanded to be discharged.
Of course there is some anxiety, but we are trying to carry on while exposed to the utmost risk.
Q: What are the main complaints that you have received from your colleagues serving in the Syrian army?
The most difficult are humanitarian cases: the wounded, the missing. Cases have reached us of wounded soldiers being neglected and improperly cared for or forced to personally pay the costs of their treatment. Most of them aren’t able to cover the costs of treatment.
Q: Are there soldiers on the fronts who run or contact the page?
Yes, there are admins of the page who are both on and off the fronts. There are also other educated people who manage it when the directors don’t have time or when they are on the fronts.
I can’t give any additional information about those who run the page.
We just want our voice and the voice of every soldier who has [served] for more than five or six years to be heard. We want an official discharge, so that nobody will accuse us of treason.
Q: President Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty for draft-dodgers that last month that gives those evading military service currently inside Syria 30 days to turn themselves in to avoid punishment, and anyone outside Syria 60 days.
As you are well aware, the Syrian army is suffering from a personnel shortage and lack of enlistment. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important is the sharp decline in the standard of living. There is little food, clothing or sleep. Shifts go on for days with few breaks. Not to mention the lack of demobilization and the extension of service and the other negative impacts of service.
In peacetime, military service was morally and materially affordable. With the war, this is no longer the case. Every Syrian knows that.
We view this [amnesty] decree as a gift from the president [that shows] his compassion. However, we ask that the president accompany it with necessary reforms to conscription and redress for those who have met the call of the homeland during this war.
Those reforms are not up for discussion, as they are in the public interest before any personal interest.
Q: Do you have a message for President Bashar al-Assad?
First, our sincere condolences to the commander of the homeland for the passing of his mother.
We say to him: We are Syrians, and we belong to Syria, but we have some requests and rights which are not up for discussion. We hope he would honor us by listening to them.
We are with him and will fulfill our obligation, even if the state of the homeland does not allow for most of our rights to be met.
Q: As for you personally, what do you think about the end of the war? What do you want to do afterwards? Do you have any particular dreams or ambitions?
My ambition used to be to finish studying law at the university, marry and build a family. Now, I just want the war to end.
My greatest aspiration right now is to be discharged. I can’t think about anything else, because once I’m discharged everything becomes clear: I’ll look for work and marry the one I love, who is waiting for me.