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Amid War and Conscription – A City Without Men

As the war in Syria pushes on into its sixth year, the streets of Damascus are eerily absent of young men in civilian clothes. While many are off fighting on the front lines, thousands have hidden themselves away at home out of fear of being forcefully conscripted.

Written by Ahmed Haj Hamdo and Mohammad Bassiki, Syrian Independent Media Group Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Syrians in a Damascus coffee shop watch a televised broadcast of President Bashar al-Assad delivering a speech in January 2012. AP/Muzaffar Salman

DAMASCUS, Syria – Walking through the streets of Damascus in the middle of the ongoing civil war, you see very few men. There are boys, teenagers and the elderly, but except for those in military uniform, one rarely sees men between the ages of 18 and 50.

This is a fairly common phenomenon in any war; soldiers are sent away to fight and many die. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that at least 52,077 of the more than 250,000 people killed since the beginning of the war in Syria have been Syrian army soldiers and allied fighters, including many from the capital city.

Thousands of other men are being detained and face horrendous conditions in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad‘s prisons. According to Amnesty International, more than 65,000 Syrians have been forcibly “disappeared” by members of Assad’s security apparatus since 2011.

Many thousands of men from the capital have also fled the country and have joined the mass exodus from Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 4.6 million Syrians have fled the war in their country, many to the neighboring states of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

There is an unusual twist to this phenomenon, however, which is that thousands of Damascus’ men have also shut themselves inside their houses – effectively becoming war househusbands – because of secret conscription lists aimed at forcing those who have previously completed their military service back into uniform.

It’s been known for some time that government forces have been depleted and exhausted by the five-year war. Even Assad admitted the insufficiency of his forces as the conflict continues.

Draft dodging is also on the rise. Some men refuse to enlist in the army because they oppose the Syrian government, while others fear being placed on the front line because of their religious affiliation. Some believe the government views soldiers from Islam’s Sunni sect as more “disposable” – soldiers from Assad’s Alawite sect are usually given safer positions, staffing airports and checkpoints.

Samer, a young father from rural southern Damascus, remembers the exact moment he became one of these househusbands.

It was the morning of July 26, when he received a phone call from his brother, Ahmad, telling him that a police officer wanted him to report to the local station right away because he had been drafted to the reserves – despite having completed his compulsory service six years earlier. Legally, he was not supposed to be drafted again.

Ahmad told his brother not to leave home except for emergencies.

According to a leaked document from the official conscription office, published by pro-opposition Syrian news website Zaman al-Wasl on November 20, the government gave all of its checkpoints the full names and dates of birth of 55,000 men who had evaded military service.

Since that date, the military and security checkpoints spread over the government-controlled areas in Damascus and the coastal region have been strictly screening everyone.

“My dreams are just shattered. I have family obligations. I have two kids who need me more than anyone else. No one can take care of them except for me. I work night and day to save them from hunger,” Samer said.

Samer told us that his brother Ahmad was recently arrested at a checkpoint and conscripted to serve in the reserve force. Ahmad had never received a notice of conscription.

The conscription campaign has left men in government-held parts of Syria with one of two options: either take the dangerous path of illegal emigration or head to the front line. Samer said he did not want to fight anybody.

“This war is not ours. There is no cause to fight for, and no one knows when it will end,” he said. “I have been living in fear for the last five months. I have been imprisoned in my own house. I never leave. My wife takes care of everything. She is the one who shops for our groceries, takes the kids to school and pays the bills. Every time someone knocks on our door, I look at my kids and think that this might be the last time I see them. My name is at each and every checkpoint. I am gone. There is no way out,” he said.

In the capital city, many women have taken over many traditionally male roles, as women did in the United States and Britain during World War II.

“The roles have switched. Men now stay at home and take care of children, while we are out. The hardest part for me is getting documents taken care of at governmental departments,” said a 30-year-old woman named Bushra. “These places are very hard for women – they are crowded, and nothing functions unless we pay bribes.”

Nadia, 53, said “the situation is unbearable” for women in Damascus. “Thankfully, my husband left three months ago. He is in Austria right now, and I will follow him soon,” she said.

Children are also doing more. Um Nazeer, 65, who lives in Damascus with her elderly husband, has relied on her 11-year-old son, Zein al-Din, to run all her errands since her two elder children emigrated to Germany and Norway. He does the grocery shopping and waits in line to buy bread, propane and other daily necessities.

“My two older kids left as soon as they reached the age of compulsory military service. They do not want to be a part of this war. I now have to take care of everything, but my little son helps me a lot. I hope that this war ends before he grows older and leaves, as well,” she said.

Um Nazeer’s son, who is in the fifth grade, told us that since his mother relies on him for many things, he frequently has to miss school – especially on the days he gets water. Because tap water is cut off most days, the boy has to buy water from water trucks and carry it home in plastic bottles.

In the same neighborhood as Zein al-Din lives another Samer, this one a 14-year-old boy. His older brother, who used to provide for the family, emigrated two years ago and Samer and his sister are now in charge. The young boy sells bread and his sister works for a public transportation company. He waits in line at the bakery for hours, then he resells any bread he buys for a slight profit. Samer is seriously thinking of quitting school, since he already misses many classes because of work.

The dearth of men has also created a new phenomenon: Women are remarrying while still legally married to someone else – men who have left the country or gone missing for a long time.

“The family court in Damascus receives many cases of women who remarried in religious ceremonies, but without consulting the court. These are women whose husbands have been away or missing for more than one year,” said Iyyad Hassan, a social researcher who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

According to the researcher, a woman from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor came to the court to get married and as the civil registry showed that she was not married, the judge approved her marriage. It was later discovered that she had actually been married in a religious ceremony, and that her former husband had been missing for more than a year, but her original marriage was not documented in the court.

Hassan points out that courts in Damascus receive five cases of missing men every day. Due to the increase in prices of furniture and housing, many engaged couples have given up wedding parties and go with the simplest housing and furniture so that they can afford to marry at all.

Widespread poverty, he said, has caused the emergence of other phenomena, like group weddings and underage marriage.

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