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Soldiers Fighting in the Syrian Civil War Against Their Will

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A Syrian soldier
A Syrian soldier at a roadblock in the Ghouta area. If in the past army service in Syria was one to two years, it is now nearly unlimited in duration. Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

Syrians studying at government universities are suffering under a new decree. From now on, they will not be able to complete their coursework if they don’t finish their degree in the time allotted by the government. Students who have put off some courses and who wish to stay in school beyond the allotted time to finish their degrees will now be immediately drafted into the army instead.

This has prompted an outcry among the students, tens of thousands of whom have take to the streets in protest — not at Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime or the Syrian system of government, but simply over retaining the right to postpone their army service.

As is the norm in Syria, the demonstrations have been forcibly suppressed. Dozens of people have been arrested. Government-run social media have assailed the students, calling them “traitors who don’t want to serve the country, while their comrades, who aren’t in school, are being killed for the sake of the homeland.” Government representatives interviewed in the media have called the demonstrations incitement against the state, asserting that students are given ample time to finish their degrees.

By law, every Syrian male must serve in the army once he turns 18. Before Syria’s civil war began, the service usually lasted 18 months to two years, but since then, military service has been of almost unlimited duration. Some draftees have been in the army for seven years and still don’t know when their service will end, since they can be required to serve in the reserves until age 42.

The law includes criteria for receiving a draft exemption or deferment. These include medical grounds, absence from the country or studies, whether in high school or university.

The law requires university students to finish their bachelor’s degrees in three years, during which they will not be drafted, even if they have reached draft age. But they can also receive draft deferments to repeat courses they failed, although not more than three times or for more than four courses.

The law also states that in most cases, a student cannot remain at a university beyond age 25. The goal is to draft as many young men as possible to beef up the army’s ranks, which have been depleted by years of war.

These rules have spurred thousands of young men to either flee Syria or move to areas controlled by rebel groups. But with the regime having retaken more and more of the country, these young men have found themselves threatened with the draft.

In newspaper interviews with young Syrian refugees in Lebanon, many have said they would have been willing to return home “yesterday,” but they don’t want to serve in the army. Therefore, they prefer living in refugee camps under difficult conditions, with no means of earning a living and no opportunity to attend college. Some are already fathers, and they aren’t willing to leave their families to fight on one of Syria’s distant fronts on behalf of a hated regime.

The state charges large amounts for draft deferment application forms, even if the application is rejected. And if a young man wants to travel abroad, he must deposit a “travel bond” of 50,000 Syrian pounds (about $100) to ensure his return.

The large demand for deferments has also been exploited by the heads of the recruitment centers set up throughout the country. They have been quick to understand the value of the bounty that has fallen into their laps. Recruitment center directors can arrange to have deferment applications approved in exchange for bribes of up to tens of thousands of dollars or even more. They can also delete names from the draft rolls or not record the names of draft dodgers, thereby permitting these men to leave the country without being arrested at the border. This gives the recruitment center heads enormous power.

Recruitment center directors have pocketed huge amounts of money. The situation has also created an entire layer of intermediaries who earn a good living off the draft-dodging industry.

“Everyone is seeking a way to make a living,” one student told the Syrian website Enab Baladi. “Officers and soldiers fighting in cities can loot and sell their booty; university faculty can earn money by handing out high grades or selling permission to continue studying; and recruitment center directors support themselves from the bribes they receive from those same students.”

The government supports higher education, but its budget for it is minuscule – about $175,000 per year. Annual tuition ranges from $100 to $200, but even that is too much for most students, who are therefore forced to support themselves and their families from odd jobs — and miss class.

About 20 percent of senior faculty have left the universities and have been replaced by people who have only a master’s or even a bachelor’s degree. But at least the students have dormitory rent paid for by the government, and many young men enroll in university just to ensure themselves a place to live. By contrast, graduates who have decided to flee Syria for Turkey or Jordan arrive with degrees that no other Arab or Turkish university is willing to recognize.

From an academic standpoint, an entire generation of students and graduates has effectively been lost to eight years of war. And they have no guaranteed future even after the war ends.

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