Hossam, a 26-year-old from Hama, has been summoned by the Syrian army to fulfill the customary 21 months of compulsory military service required of all young men here, but – three years into a conflict that has killed more than 62,800 fighters from all sides – he is refusing to comply.
“The Syrian army is no longer the nation’s army, and nothing motivates me to join it,” he says.
But despite large swaths of Syria having shifted from government to rebel control, it’s still illegal to dodge military service. So for nearly a year, Hossam has been hiding out from the government authorities who patrol large areas of Hama.
Thousands of young Syrian men are following suit. Since the conflict began in 2011, a steady stream of young men have elected to dodge their compulsory service. The numbers are particularly pronounced in rebel-held areas, where army officials – desperately in need of additional manpower – constantly hunt for truants.
Many choose to leave Syria, escaping to neighboring Lebanon or Turkey. Others, like Hossam, hide in their towns and villages, or have escaped to areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. And some have are fighting, but with rebel brigades.
Military service has been compulsory in Syria since 1955, before the days of Assad family rule. Every man who reaches 18 and has no male siblings is required by law to serve 18 months in the Syrian army. The requirement used to be for 21 months; Assad, seeking to deflect public anger in the early days of the revolution, decreased it in spring 2011.
In December of that year, a statement from army defector Colonel Riad al-Asaad said the number of defectors had reached 40,000. Since then, the government has been widely accused of refusing to allow many soldiers to leave at the end of their mandated tours of duty.
The last group to be released from compulsory service was on January 1, 2012. Since then, new conscripts often find themselves serving open-ended terms. Many say they have served three years or more, without being allowed days off.
Mohammed, in his 20s, is from rural Idlib province and joined the Syrian army, as mandated, in 2010, less than a year before the start of the conflict. After serving on the mountainous southern front of Qalamoun, he defected in 2012 and now lives in Ghazi Eintab, Turkey.
He says the soldiers were the first to be sent to dangerous front-line fighting, while army officials stayed behind in barracks. “We didn’t feel the situation was equal,” he says. “This is why my friends and I defected.”
The vast majority of men who volunteer to serve in the Syrian army are from the Alawite strongholds of Latakia and Tartous, on the Syrian coast, where Assad is still largely popular and where his army maintains control.
Maher, a 30-year-old army sergeant from rural Latakia, came to the army through mandatory backup service – the government’s call to civilian men over age 40. Having already served their mandatory stints, thousands of Alawites have now returned for a second round, providing the regime with desperately needed manpower.
Then there are men like Wasim. When he was summoned for backup service, the 29-year-old volunteered not for the Syrian army itself, but for the National Defense Forces, a civilian militia that supports Assad’s forces and whose enlistment enforcement can be lax.
“I get paid 15,000 Syrian pounds ($100) per month in salary from the militia,” he says. “I give it to the officer in charge [as a bribe], and in turn he is OK with me not showing up. Instead, I work as a house painter.”
But Wasim’s double duty could soon come to an end; the government has initiated a campaign to ensure that those called for backup service are fulfilling their promise.
It has also begun to crack down on draft dodgers, threatening families in order to pressure their sons to don the uniform of the Syrian army.
Last summer, in the Tartous town of Qadmous, residents say security forces detained 11 children so that their older brothers would surrender themselves as conscripts in exchange for their release.
Once enlisted, defection – once difficult but carried out regularly by soldiers and senior officers alike – has become close to impossible. “They took our cell phones and we are not allowed to make any calls. This makes coordinating a defection impossible,” says one sergeant, from Deir Ezzor. “I have not had any days off for the past 18 months. My father and my brother passed away when the air force shelled our neighborhood. I could not even attend their funeral.” Fawaz, a soldier from Idlib, did manage to defect from his mandatory 18-month service one year ago.
He expected to have to hide out from government forces. But when he arrived home to his rebel-controlled village, he discovered it was the opposition that wanted to arrest him, since he had served with the military.