After more than five years of conflict, hundreds of thousands of casualties, and the displacement of over 11 million people, there is no end in sight for the Syrian civil war. As pro-Assad forces seized Eastern Aleppo this week, the United Nations cited reports that dozens of civilians were summarily executed by advancing government forces. Hundreds of men have gone missing after fleeing into government-controlled neighborhoods. The advance in Aleppo comes days after the Islamic State recaptured the historic city of Palmyra, just nine months after being pushed out by government forces.
Some credit the bloody stalemate between the government, rebels, and ISIL for the lack of resolution in Syria. Others blame the lack of decisive Western intervention, and the seeming proxy war between the United States and Russia. But there is another crucial factor at the heart of this violent conflict: mandatory military service.
It’s easy to forget that the Syrian rebels, however badly they fractured or Islamized in subsequent years, began essentially as conscientious objectors. Military service is required in the country for men over the age of 18, who are theoretically obliged to serve for 18 months. Shortly after anti-government demonstrations broke out in 2011, president Bashar al-Assad’s government ordered the military to violently suppress protesters; some soldiers refused, and as the revolution turned violent, those objectors fought to avoid being captured or killed. Many soldiers who ultimately defected to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) ended up rebelling violently against their former leaders. Still today, military conscription puts tremendous pressure on Syrian youth, essentially forcing an entire generation to choose between fighting for an authoritarian government, risking imprisonment, fleeing the country, or joining the rebels.
“All your life issues” in Syria are related to military service, says Kheder Khaddour, a Syrian nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “If you want a passport, you must get a paper from a military office. If you want to be an employee of the Syrian state, you must get permission from military office. The government has played on that psychologically for the last three decades.”
“When the revolution started, I stopped even ‘postponing,’ because ‘postponing’ means you recognize the authorities, and I do not.”
That’s Muhammed—his last name has been omitted to protect his safety—an activist and journalist who before the revolution had deferred his military service while attending college. In 2012, after Muhammed’s postponements turned into an outright refusal to serve, his family began to receive threats from Syrian security services. “Someone from the regime called my dad asking about me. I stopped going to the regime areas at all, simply because I was wanted for military service.”
Khaddour says young men facing conscription confront a terrible dilemma: Not only are those not supportive of the regime forced to fight against their families and communities, but it’s unclear when the war will end. There are army members still serving today who were drafted before the start of the conflict.
“They joined the army before the uprising and they [still] haven’t left,” Khaddour says. “Six years of military service. When the new generation sees this example they are not going to want to join.”
The regime’s recruitment efforts are complex and fragmented—among other tactics, Assad has escalated training of a paramilitary group known as the National Defense Force (NDF)—but bolstering government forces is a driving focus. Already, Assad has had to increasingly rely on sectarian fighters from other nations: Lebanese Hezbollah militia, Iraqi and Afghan Shia militia, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been supporting the Syrian Arab Army on the ground for years.
The regime has also attempted to exploit religious minorities who are suspicious of the heavily Islamist rebel groups, with limited success. Since the war broke out, members of Syria’s Druze minority, for example, have decried rebel groups targeting Druze civilians, but remain resistant to fighting strictly on the government’s behalf.
“They don’t want their youth to go and fight in Aleppo hundreds of kilometers away,” Khaddour says. “They see in that community that this is not their war.”
That ambivalence has not gone unnoticed by the government. In May 2015, a man in the heavily Druze southern city of Sweida was arrested for avoiding conscription, prompting a protest around police headquarters (he was ultimately released). The regime is also suspected of assassinating a Druze man named Sheikh Wahid al-Balous.
It’s been more than five years since military defectors formed the core of the Free Syrian Army, but mandatory military service continues to play a poignant role in the conflict. During negotiations for the surrender of rebel-held Moadamiyeh in September, the regime’s demands included that young men, many of whom were children when the siege began, join the army. After the siege in Aleppo this week, a Reuters photographer captured hundreds of young men being forcibly conscripted.
There are also numerous confirmed reports that government forces continue to coerce prisoners into military service. In one incident, 200 prisoners at Adra prison on the outskirts of Damascus reportedly agreed to join the army in exchange for leniency.
The struggle for willing soldiers has even been admitted by pro-regime actors. A report from Russian general Mikhail Khodarenok, translated by The Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian organization that tracks Russian war casualties, stated that Syria’s regular forces are not at all enthusiastic about fighting for Assad.
While Syria’s civil war is affected by many factors, it will be impossible to negotiate an end to the conflict without addressing mandatory military service. Military-age refugees cannot return home if they are to be arrested as draft-dodgers. Men who have refused to serve cannot live in fear for their lives. And neither group can be forced into an army that has besieged them and their families for years.
Says Muhammad: “The regime is forcing Syrians to kill their [own] people under the name of serving the country.”