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memri
April 25, 2016 No.
1241

In Syria, High Rate Of Draft Dodging Triggers Intensive Military Recruitment Efforts By Syrian Regime

By: N. Mozes*

Introduction

In recent months there have been increasing reports, particularly on Syrian oppositionist websites and also anti-Syrian regime Qatari and Saudi websites, on draft dodging in Syria. According to Syria's 2007 Service of the Flag law, anyone over the age of 18 but under 42 is obligated to do 24 months of compulsory military service.[1] The draft-dodging trend existed prior to the Syrian revolution but has increased dramatically since it began, especially among Sunnis, and has now spread to members of minority groups that have traditionally been pro-regime, including President Bashar Al-Assad's own 'Alawi sect, because of the heavy losses suffered by regime forces. It is estimated that draft-dodgers in Syria today number between 70,000 and 110,000.

These figures have not escaped the attention of Assad himself. In a July 26, 2015 speech to leaders and members of popular organizations and professional unions, he acknowledged that in light of the "manpower shortage," the military has been forced to abandon fighting in some areas in Syria, and focus its attention on more important locations. Criticizing the Syrian people for not defending its land and property, he said: "Some say that it is the army's duty [to defend the homeland]. This is true. But this does not prevent anyone from defending his home, neighborhood, village, and city. There is no justification for the army to enter areas that young people have abandoned and from which they have emigrated. This is unacceptable." In the same speech, he also declared a presidential pardon for draft dodgers.[2]

Addressing the same issue, Syrian Mufti Ahmad Hassoun rebuked draft dodgers, stating that that no man can escape his fate: "...There are some whom I knew by name, who avoided serving the homeland, travelled to Libya, then by sea to Europe, and drowned on the way... There is a difference between drowning far from one's homeland and dying a martyr's death defending one's nation and honor."[3]

The Syrian regime is tackling the problem with arrests and forced induction, and is also taking steps to increase recruitment: pardoning draft dodgers; increasing the pay of frontline fighters;[4] and conducting campaigns to promote enlistment. Another move is the formation of popular paramilitary volunteer groups, whose members are exempt from compulsory military service, receive a salary, and are stationed near home. These groups were established with Iranian guidance, and with the help of Iranian elements, after the model of Iran's Basij paramilitary organization.

This paper will review how the Syrian regime is handling the phenomenon of draft dodging: 

The Increase In Draft Dodging In Regime-Controlled Areas

As noted, reports in recent months indicate significantly greater dodging of the draft into the Syrian army and failure to report for reserve service in areas controlled by the regime, especially among populations that have traditionally supported the regime. Most worrisome for the regime is draft avoidance by Assad's own 'Alawi sect, which he considers the spearhead of the regime.[5]

Thus, in June 2015, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, which is close to the Iran-led resistance axis, reported that hundreds of young men in Latakia had taken to the streets to celebrate the Spanish soccer club Barcelona FC's victory in the UEFA Champions League tournament, while the Syrian army battled throughout the country, "only a few dozen kilometers from Latakia itself." According to the daily, this incident spurred a pro-regime Facebook page to call on the military police "to drag all the draft dodgers from the cafes and take them to Aleppo and Idlib in order to raise the morale of the Syrian army."[6]

In May 2015, a Syrian oppositionist website reported that the Jaysh Al-Fatah coalition, led by Jabhat Al-Nusra, was advancing in Idlib towards the Al-Latakia governorate, which is considered a regime stronghold, prompting regime supporters in the Idlib area in northwest Syria to take to social media to protest the fact that 110,000 young men from the Tartus and Al-Latakia governorates on the Syrian coast had dodged compulsory and reserve service in the Syrian army. They called for establishing a Hashd Al-Sha'abi, or popular mobilization force, like that in Iraq,[7] to fight Jaysh Al-Fatah.[8]

Draft dodging is evident as well in the Christian and Druze communities; for example, in April 2015, a Christian student in Damascus told the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV channel: "I support the regime but dodge the draft, because military service in Syria spells death... Only a few young men enlist, because people our age do not want to die."[9] Members of the Druze community appear to evade military service at exceptionally high rates. A Syrian oppositionist website reported that Druze leaders in the Al-Suwayda governorate asked President Assad to arm them because ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra were advancing towards their region, and that Assad had agreed provided that they hand over 27,000 draft dodgers in the region.[10]  

Arrests And Forced Induction

One method used by the Syrian regime to tackle the problem of draft dodgers is arresting them, inducting them, and, after abbreviated basic training, sending them to the frontlines. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that from early November through mid-December 2015, 1,217 young men, mostly from the Damascus governorate, had been arrested and inducted.[11] In early May 2015, it was reported that military intelligence forces patrolling the industrial zone of Jableh on the Syrian coast, where many residents had been killed fighting alongside the regime, had arrested many young men employed there.[12] Later that month, it was reported that regime forces had arrested several draft dodgers in the majority-Druze Al-Suwayda governorate, but had been forced to release them after locals surrounded the area where they were being held.[13] Regime forces also arrested some 150 draft dodgers in Hama in May 2015; a Syrian oppositionist website reported that the detainees were taken to a nearby airbase and from there sent to the frontlines.[14]

Another oppositionist website reported that students with deferments were also being arrested. It wrote that the regime had placed roadblocks near Aleppo University and in neighboring areas in order to arrest students and others and forcibly induct them. One student said that regime forces had even stormed the university campus to arrest students.[15]

In December 2015, an oppositionist website reported that some Damascus higher education institutions were emptied of students and on the verge of closing following waves of arrests and forced conscriptions of students, with the remaining students avoiding campuses because they themselves feared arrest and forced conscription.[16]

The regime has also been arresting reservists evading service, and, according to one oppositionist website, in July 2015 arrested some 50 men from various sects in the northern Homs governorate, most of whom had already completed their compulsory service long before the start of the Syrian conflict.[17]

In February 2016, an oppositionist website reported that the regime was even conscripting teenage boys under 18 in the city of Deir Al-Zor, which was surrounded by ISIS. According to the report, the city's military operations commander, Gen. Muhammad Hadour, announced the establishment of a self-defense force in the city, and that security forces were authorized to arrest all males aged 15 to 60 and induct them into this force.[18]

Oppositionist websites report that this arrest-and-induct policy is often resisted by the local residents. Thus, in April 2015 it was reported that 'Alawi women drafted into the regime's National Defense force used their weapons to stop security forces from arresting draft dodgers.[19] In November 2015, residents of Al-Salamiyah, some 30 kilometers east of Hama, and neighboring villages protested against the regime's intentions to arrest 600 local young men who were already members of regime paramilitary groups and send them to the frontlines. According to one report, this move by the regime was a breach of a regime promise to these young men not to send them to the front.[20]  

Campaigns Promoting Enlistment

Along with arrests, the regime has also launched campaigns to encourage men to enlist; one was the Call to Arms campaign, launched in early May 2015. According to campaign organizer Shadi 'Aliwi, this initiative was not launched by the regime but by a group of 20 social activists, some of them members of the Syrian army.[21] Along with social media activity to encourage enlistment, the campaign also erected several billboards in regime-controlled territories - a costly endeavor - which was covered widely by regime media; this might indicate that the group was receiving support from the regime.

Call To Arms activist Hadi Makhlouf explained the campaign's importance during a state TV channel's special day of broadcasting devoted to the campaign: "We currently need every Syrian who can bear arms to join the army and armed forces... After four difficult years, during which the world has fought a devastating war against us, we must all bear arms and assist the army..."[22]

The campaign's Facebook page, which has over 30,000 followers, features testimony and images of Syrian soldiers, as well as videos demonstrating their courage and victories.[23]

 
"With our army, we will win back our country" (Sirajpress.com, June 6, 2015)

 
"The army belongs to us all" (Alasema.com, July 2, 2015) 

Clerics Promote Enlistment

The regime has also employed loyalist Sunni clerics to encourage men to enlist. In July 2015, Syrian Mufti Ahmad Hassoun warned draft dodgers that no one can escape their fate: "...There are some whom I knew by name, who avoided serving the homeland, travelled to Libya, then by sea to Europe, and drowned on the way... There is a difference between drowning far from one's homeland and dying a martyr's death defending one's nation and honor."[24]

Additionally, in November 2015 a Syrian oppositionist website reported on a secret meeting in Damascus between the leaders of pro-regime mosques and religious institutions in the city and regime and recruitment apparatus security officials. The clerics agreed to the officials' request to hand over lists of their students of reservist age, or who have evaded the draft. It was also reported that after the meeting, the clerics began urging their supporters to enlist in the army.[25]

One such cleric, Ma'moun Rahma, imam of the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, used his Friday sermons to urge worshipers to enlist in the army, and said that citizens who evaded the draft had no right to complain about government institutions, such as the Electricity Ministry: "There are many people who say 'we want electricity'... You want services without fighting? You want services without sending your children to defend your land and their honor? The Electricity Ministry has done a great deal, and has lost many martyrs. It does its duty, but we sit in our secure homes, ask 'where is the electricity?' and feel nothing towards the soldier fighting in the Al-Qalamoun mountains who suffers cold and hardship... Have you any right to hide while others go to fight organizations such as ISIS, that the ummah is forced to combat? ..."[26]

It was also reported that on the Friday following the meeting, security forces conducted many arrests among Damascus worshipers.[27]

Clerics in other governorates were also called upon to help fight draft dodging, and to encourage enlistment. The news website Arabi21 reported on November 24, 2015 that 'Abd Al-Fattah Muhammad Rihawi, the head of religious endowments in Al-Latakia governorate, had sent a memo to imams and mosque preachers calling on them to guide young men who are evading being drafted into compulsory service or doing reserve duty, and exhort them to immediately head to recruitment offices in their areas. He promised that draft dodgers who did so would not be prosecuted and would be allowed to serve in their governorate, not sent to the frontlines.[28]

 
Memo distributed by the head of religious endowments in Al-Latakia (Arabi21.com, November 24, 2015) 

The circulation of this memo in Al-Latakia is further evidence that draft dodging is also rife in regime strongholds. In December 2015, it was reported that the Hama governorate's Ministry of Religious Endowments had circulated a similar memo, from the governor, at mosques, calling on worshipers to enlist in the newly established Hama Brigade.[29]  

Establishing Paramilitary Groups And "Volunteer Brigades"

Another regime solution for draft dodging is to promise the men that they will serve relatively close to home. In July 2015, an oppositionist website reported that the Syrian regime had issued an order in territories it controlled, particularly the coastal and Damascus areas, promising recruits that they would be serving in their own governorates.[30]

Additionally, the regime began establishing paramilitary groups tasked with defending the governorates themselves. This began some one year after the start of the Syrian crisis, and increased in 2015 following the regime's many defeats in the coastal and Idlib areas and due to its severe manpower shortage. Establishing such paramilitary groups allows the regime to rotate army forces to the frontlines without abandoning the rear, while also maintaining the loyalty of residents. The regime labelled enlistment in such groups as "volunteering" and promised economic incentives and exemptions from regular military services to those who joined. However, in reality, the term "volunteer" was merely a euphemism, for those who did not join faced economic and other sanctions. For example, an oppositionist website reported that the Eastern Command of the Syrian army had threatened the residents of Deir Al-Zor that if their sons did not join the local paramilitary Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi militia, power to the city would be cut and the homes of evaders would be appropriated for the benefit of soldiers.[31]

State workers were also called to join "Volunteer Brigades" established for them throughout Syria. Those who joined were promised financial incentives. State workers who attempted to avoid enlistment faced economic sanctions, some even losing their jobs.

Some of these groups, such as the National Defense force and the Volunteer Brigades, are deployed nationally, while others are local groups such as Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi in Deir Al-Zor and The Coastal Shield Brigade (Liwaa' Dir' Al-Sahel).

Iran plays a substantial and active role in establishing these groups, which are modeled on the Iranian Basij militia. These was clearly indicated by IRGC official Hossein Hamadani, who said that "one result of [Iran's] presence [in Syria]... was the establishment of a type of Basij known as the 'National Defense,'" which he called "an angel of salvation for the Syrian people..."[32]

Further evidence of this can be seen by the fact that the Deir Al-Zor Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi militia is named after a coalition of popular Iraqi militias, largely Shi'ite, which are supported by Iran. Syrian oppositionist websites and anti-Syrian regime media specifically point to the role played by IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in the establishment of these groups.[33]

 

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


Endnotes:

[1] Syrianembassy.se, accessed  April 14, 2016.

[2] Al-Watan (Syria), July 27, 2015. An additional pardon was issued on February 18, 2016.

[3] Aksalser.com, July 20, 2015.

[4] In a speech to the Syrian parliament in early June 2015, Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi said that starting in July 2015, a monthly grant of 10,000 Syrian lira (approximately $37) would be given to armed forces members on the frontlines. Dp-news.com, June 8, 2015; Alarabiya.net, June 9, 2015.

[5] For more, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1225, 'Alawi Sect Showing Signs Of Opposition To Assad Regime, February 4, 2016.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 11, 2015.

[7] "Popular mobilization force" - a collection of armed militias, mostly Shi'ite, fighting alongside the Iraqi army against ISIS and largely financed by the state.

[8] Zamanalwsl.net, May 5, 2015.

[9] Alarabiya.net, April 19, 2015.

[10] Sirajpress.com, May 27, 2015.

[11] Orient-news.net, December 22, 2015.

[12] All4syria.info, May 3, 2015.

[13] Orient-news.net, May 31, 2015.

[14] All4syria.info, May 31, 2015.

[15] Orient-news.net, July 13, 2015.

[16] Zamanalwsl.net, December 24, 2015.

[17] All4syria.info, July 4, 2015.

[18] All4syria.info, February 13, 2016.

[19] All4syria.info, April 13, 2015.

[20] Aksalser.com, November 22, 2015; All4syria.info, November 25, 2015.

[21] Facebook.com/Call.to.arms.sy, May 18, 2015.

[22] Facebook.com/Call.to.arms.sy, June 13, 2015.

[23] Facebook.com/Call.to.arms.sy

[24] Aksalser.com, July 20, 2015.

[25] All4syria.info, November 22, 2015.

[26] Aksalser.com, November 21, 2015.

[27] All4syria.info, November 22, 2015.

[28] Arabi21.com, November 24,  2015.

[29] Enabbaladi.org, December 11, 2015.

[30] All4syria.info, July 5, 2015.

[31] Aranews.org, May 11, 2015.

[32] Defa Press (Iran), July 8, 2015.

[33] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 22, 2015; Arabi21.com, March 10, 2015.