ISTANBUL – Ali was in high school when the so-called Islamic State captured a large chunk of territory in Deir Ezzor in 2014. Three years later, ISIS issued its first order for the conscription of military-age men in the eastern province. At the age of 20, that meant Ali.
While living under the militant group’s rule, Ali, whose name has been changed for security reasons, said he had been tempted to join the ranks of extremists in the past. But his father, who was staunchly opposed to ISIS, stopped him.
When ISIS began to forcibly conscript men in August of this year, Ali finally understood his father’s fears. In September, he fled Deir Ezzor’s provincial capital to its eastern countryside to avoid forced conscription by ISIS. He would eventually make his way to the Free Syrian Army-held town of Jarablus near the border with Turkey.
Syria Deeply spoke to Ali about his life under ISIS, the militants’ forced conscription, and how he escaped Deir Ezzor.
Syria Deeply: What do you recall from life under ISIS rule in Deir Ezzor?
Ali: Mainly, the many public trials and executions. I remember one from September of last year in the town of Mayadeen. ISIS was carrying out a trial of a man accused of theft. ISIS fighters put a table in the middle of the town’s central square and armed soldiers lined up in the area. Residents stood in a circle nearby, watching. One of the armed fighters announced the charge and the verdict, and then another man severed one of the young man’s hands. Then they started yelling “Allahu Akbar.”
Syria Deeply: Why did you decide to leave Deir Ezzor?
Ali: ISIS had issued a compulsory conscription order after suffering continuous losses in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and other cities that they controlled in the southern countryside of Hasaka. The aim of the law was to compensate for the great losses in human capital at a time when ISIS needed many fighters to support it in its multiple fronts.
I was tempted to join ISIS before, especially because a lot of my father’s friends had encouraged me to do so. But, when the law came out, I felt a terrible fear and I realized that my father was right for not wanting me to. I felt there was a difference between joining something because I believe in it and joining something because I was being forced. My father was also horrified by this law and knew there would be no way to avoid [my conscription.] So we organized my escape from ISIS-controlled areas.
Syria Deeply: How did other residents of Deir Ezzor react to the conscription order?
Ali: After the decision was made, there was a state of fear among the people of Deir Ezzor. The fear was greater among the parents of sons who had not gotten involved with ISIS. They couldn’t reject the decision publicly and they couldn’t prevent ISIS from taking their sons and putting them on the front lines.
No one in ISIS-controlled areas can express his opinion or object to a decision that ISIS takes. Only obedience is accepted. So, escape was the only available option for the people of Deir Ezzor to avoid compulsory conscription. But the trip out of ISIS-held territory is no less dangerous. The roads they have to walk are filled with ISIS checkpoints and patrols, as well as minefields scattered randomly in the desert surrounding Deir Ezzor, both in the north and in the south.
Syria Deeply: How did you get out of Deir Ezzor?
Ali: First, I had to be smuggled from Mayadeen to al-Shadadeh in Hasaka province, where my aunt lives. The journey from Mayadeen to al-Shadadeh was filled with fear, as ISIS was preventing people from leaving their areas, especially young men of fighting age. Roadblocks were set up on the roads leading to Hasaka, Raqqa and Damascus. ISIS also dispatched forces to the northern desert and southern desert to prevent the smuggling of families and the escape of young men.
But I was lucky. My smuggler took desert roads for two days until we could escape ISIS-held territory in Deir Ezzor and reach areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. But even there, we were faced by the threat of landmines planted in the area. Eventually we reached al-Sadd camp, an informal settlement, located on the road connecting Hasaka to Deir Ezzor. I stayed there for 15 days.
My aunt was eventually able to get me out of the camp, and I stayed in her house for about 10 days, until another smuggler took me from al-Shadadeh to the eastern countryside of Aleppo and then to Jarabulus.
Syria Deeply: Before leaving Deir Ezzor, did you notice that ISIS was severely strained?
Ali: Everybody in Deir Ezzor, including me, noticed a significant decrease in the number of ISIS members, including members of the Islamic police, the Hesbah police, and even civil servants working in schools and water stations – many of whom have been transferred to frontlines.
Many ISIS members also defected and escaped. You often hear talk of people who used to be with ISIS and have managed to escape to northern Syria or neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey.
ISIS responds to these defections by confiscating the property of escapees. It also claims that these people escaped after they were discovered to be traitors by ISIS, although that is not always the case.
It is clear that ISIS does not have much confidence at this time, unlike when they started. I haven’t seen any new members joining ISIS voluntarily.
ISIS is in a state of full alert. They are torn between fighting and trying to preserve the society they built.
The answers have been edited for length and clarity.