The Hell of Syria's Army Draft Is One Many Try Their Best to Avoid

Before 2011, military service provided a decent livelihood for young men and was even a status symbol. That changed during the drawn-out war

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A Syrian army soldier stands next to a Syrian flag in Umm al-Mayazen, in the countryside of Deraa, Syria, July 10, 2018
A Syrian army soldier stands next to a Syrian flag in Umm al-Mayazen, in the countryside of Deraa, Syria, July 10, 2018Credit: Omar Sanadiki/REUTERS

A recent article on the liberal Arabic media site Raseef22 expressed how compulsory military service in Syria has become the greatest source of anxiety for hundreds of thousands of young men and their families.

“Seriously, man, you’re at your draft office to go through the most important chapter in your life, which will fill your heart with pride,” wrote Bashar Shihab in the article, entitled “The nightmare of Syrian compulsory service, peace be upon on the country emptied of its young people.” “It’s the chapter of your life when you serve the flag – the nightmare of every Syrian young man,” he wrote.

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Before the civil war broke out in 2011, military service provided a decent livelihood for young men and was even a status symbol. But during the years of the civil war, when it became clear how Syrian soldiers were killing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians and getting killed themselves, and when the extent of the regime’s cruelty to its citizens emerged, the feelings were reversed. Draft notices are received like the death announcement of a loved one, and military service itself seems like life in hell.

According to the Syrian constitution, every 18-year-old male must serve in the army from 18 months to two years. But exemptions are also abundant. An only son (even if he has sisters) doesn’t have to serve. University students can postpone service until they graduate, students abroad can pay an exemption fee until their return after which they must report to the draft office. Those who are too sick to serve can also obtain the sought-after exemption. These escape hatches are used prodigiously by potential draftees. Students fail their last-year finals on purpose to be able to postpone service for a year, then another, and another, for a maximum of three years, with the hope that in those three years the war will be over.

Young men injure themselves to obtain a medical discharge and thousands of young men have left the country to avoid service. The regime knows all the tricks and it gives few medical discharges and only then after long and exhaustive tests. Only sons of young mothers discover that the army refuses to release them, saying that their parents can still have more boys, and then they would no longer be only sons, while students at the end of their studies have discovered new regulations that strictly sift through requests for postponements.

Young men who have gone to study abroad are required to pay an exemption fee of $6,000 to $8,000 for each year’s postponement; that’s the official rate, not including additional fees to middle men who and can obtain an exemption for a high one-time payment to someone at the draft office. Most young men living in Syria don’t have that kind of money or the legal option of paying a fee instead of serving. Many of them emigrate or leave their hometowns, risking apprehension at the many roadblocks and arrest by soldiers who themselves had been unable to avoid service.

One such young man told the website Daraj that he was lucky enough to have a friend at the draft office who let him know any time soldiers were sent to his town to arrest young men who had not reported for duty. “I would run away for two or three days to the fields until I got the all-clear,” he said. Instead of serving in the army, he worked on his father’s farm, planting vegetables and harvesting fruit, thus helping his family.

Another young man said: “I’ve been living in my city for the past 10 years like a mouse. I’ve never gone to another city. I can’t do anything official that requires going to a government office.” He also can’t get married because marriage requires an official certificate from the draft office confirming military service. Now, he admits that he may have made a mistake, and 10 years of his life have passed fruitlessly without having been able to move ahead. “If I had joined the army my service would have ended by now and I would have ended my life either on the battlefield or off, and now I have nothing more I can do.”

Another group of young men have established a “literary salon” where they meet in different homes to read literature or write music, spending their lives in hiding. Their instructor is a former university lecturer who himself evaded the draft. He can’t get a teaching job or any other proper employment as a result, but he finds intellectual satisfaction in the company of these young men.

Recently, a new means of dodging the draft, and a profitable one at that, has opened up. Russia, through subcontractors, is recruiting young men without experience, giving them brief military training and sending them to Libya to fight. They can earn between $1000 to $1500 a month, a fortune for a young Syrian man, equivalent to payment for three or four months of work. If they die, some of these mercenaries said, let it be for good money and not for free for the hated regime.

According to a 2018 survey of Syrian residents, 80 percent of young men in Syria want to emigrate, and more than a third of them say the reason is compulsory military service. Shihab expounded in his article on the need for a change. “Why shouldn’t military service become the goal of every young man by raising soldiers’ standard of living and giving them economic and social benefits in line with the sacrifice they are required to make? I think that such steps are more important than building hotels and recreation sites in a country that is moving very slowly out of war and still isn’t attracting tourists,” he wrote.