When 29-year-old Bassam defected from the Syrian army he thought he had escaped mandatory military service for good. The law school student fled to Iraqi Kurdistan in early 2012, then to the neighboring Syrian city of Qamishli.
But the draft followed him. On July 13 the militant arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which exerts civil control over Kurdish-majority areas of the northeast, introduced a bill that would force Bassam to join the Kurdish armed forces.
For Bassam and other men, here the new law is eerily similar to the Syrian government’s requirement, which stipulates 18 months of mandatory service. Under it, young men living in Bassam’s canton of Al Jazeera – one of three PYD-controlled, Kurdish-majority cantons in Hassakeh province – will be required to serve with the YPG, the group’s military wing, in what the group is calling “self-defense duty.” It was, at least in part, a response to the creeping threat of ISIS on their sovereign territory.
Fearing conscription, Bassam tried to flee to Turkey after the bill was introduced. After crossing the border illegally, he says he was captured by Turkish soldiers, beaten and sent back.
“Now, I’m trying to find a smuggler who can help me get to Turkey, with my wife, so I can start a new life,” he says.
The new law requires each family to enlist one of its men, 18 to 30 years old, for a period of up to a year. In another canton, Kobani, it applies to men ages 18 to 45. They will be required to serve a total of six months over the course of the next year.
The YPG established their power over the cantons earlier this year, tasked with protecting Kurdish territory from the Syrian regime and encroaching rebel factions. Now, faced with the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – which has been making small inroads into Hassakeh – they are being forced to draft civilians.
When it first came to power, the YPG – a militant group that is a partner of the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization based in Turkey – rattled some residents in the areas where they declared themselves the de facto government. But today, Kurds see them as the final wall of defense against increasingly violent extremist factions.
A desertion like Bassam’s will not be taken lightly. The bill has strict measures for deserters: those captured are to be taken to the nearest local officials, to face trials for crimes committed by soldiers during service.
The bill has rankled Kurds, whose territory has long been viewed as one of the last remaining pockets of normalcy in a country destroyed by three years of conflict.
“For a militia to force citizens to raise arms and join its ranks is, in any circumstances, a crime against humanity,” says Hussein Chalabi, a Kurdish lawyer and activist.
On July 19, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the PYD’s opposition, issued a statement calling the bill a “direct infringement of the voluntary nature of our people’s struggle for our just cause.”
Mohammad Nathir Khalil, 47, works as a laborer at the Rumailan oil field in Hassakeh. He has two sons and five daughters, including Nafea, 22, who had returned home to the province after his studies at Homs’ Ba’ath University were cut short by the conflict.
“After the bill was sanctioned, I decided to send him to Turkey,” Khalil says. “I don’t want him to fight. After the bill, all young men are afraid they will forced to fight, or arrested if they don’t. Many are fleeing to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The most painful thing for Khalil is that his son and others are now fleeing a land that, until now, has been largely cut off from the most serious implications of the war.
“All we fathers wish for now,” he says, “is to see our sons leave their homeland.”