Syria army conscription and poor conditions stir anger

Syria army conscription and poor conditions stir anger
Pro-regime Syrians have been expressing their anger at the army's decision to extend tours of duty and its pursuit of an aggressive conscription campaign.
4 min read
13 November, 2015
Syrian army ranks have been depleted by half by years of conflict [AFP]
The Syrian army's repeated extensions of tours of duty and aggressive recent conscription campaigns are stirring anger online and in private conversations among pro-regime Syrians.

Depleted by years of conflict, with its ranks approximately halved, the army has been forced to keep conscripts on well past their usual two years of service.

And it has expanded its bid to tackle endemic draft-dodging, setting up multiple checkpoints in Damascus in recent weeks and scooping up men between the ages of 20 and 40.

Online, several Facebook pages have sprung up in which conscripts angered by repeated extensions of their mandatory national service vent their feelings.

On one, named "We Want to Leave the Army", members identifying themselves as conscripts from "Group 102" proclaim: "I have the right to leave the army; I have the right to live."

"The homeland is for all, but everyone has gone abroad. We ask to be released from service - and they talk to us about resistance!"
     While military service in Syria ordinarily lasts two years, some soldiers are now serving their fifth or sixth year.

Another reads: "We're the ones who have been resisting for five and a half years, and now it's enough. It's up to you to resist in our place." The page has several thousand followers.

Syria's military has been ravaged by a conflict that began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

The once 300,000-strong force has been halved by deaths, defections and draft-dodging, according to experts.

At least 91,678 pro-government forces - among them 52,077 soldiers - are among the more than 250,000 people killed in the conflict, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

'I'm a person too'

President Bashar al-Assad even acknowledged the strain on the armed forces earlier this year.

"There is a lack of human resources" in the army, he said in July, after a string of losses in northwestern Idlib province.

"The problem facing the military is not related to planning but to fatigue," he added.

While military service in Syria ordinarily lasts two years, some soldiers are now serving their fifth or sixth year.

On another Facebook page called "Hey Guys, We Want to Leave", one soldier laments: "You know, I have the right to live. I'm a person too; I have a future, parents, a fiancee, just like you."

Hussein, 34, has been serving since 2010, and says he has "paid a heavy price for the homeland".

"We've fought a lot. Now it's up to others to do it," he told AFP.

"Those who are enjoying themselves in cafes should be taking up arms in our place."

'Lost my taste for life'

Reached by phone, 28-year-old gunner Shadi described multiple tours in different parts of the country over the past four years.

He has fought in central Syria's Homs, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in the east and north, and is now in Hasakeh, in the northeast.

"I've seen death up close multiple times, particularly when I was under siege in the Tabqa military airport," he told AFP.

Tabqa, in Raqqa province, was besieged by Islamic State group forces, who eventually seized it in August 2014, massacring some 200 soldiers who remained inside.

"Today, I'm no longer afraid, but I've lost my taste for life," Shadi said.

"I'm tired of continuing my military service. Sometimes I think that my life will be lived forever by the side of my cannon," he added.

"I have white hair, I feel like I'm 50. I just want to return to civilian life."

In Damascus, meanwhile, the army's latest bid to snare draft-dodgers has left many military-age men afraid to leave their homes.

"I'm holed up at home and my brother isn't going to work so he won't get stopped at a checkpoint and bundled into a bus heading for a barracks," one 24-year-old resident told AFP.

"Before they would pick people up leaving the cities, but now it is inside Damascus. I know dozens of people who have been picked up," he added.

Resentment among pro-regime Syrians has spiked at other points during the conflict, particularly over the issue of conscription and the fate of the soldiers killed in Tabqa.

In September 2014, authorities arrested five pro-government activists who criticised the intelligence services and defence ministry over military losses and the deaths of soldiers.