Muhammad, a 25-year-old Syrian from the Alawite religious community, says he never imagined taking up arms before the four-year uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad turned into a prolonged armed conflict.
“I never envisioned myself carrying weapons and fighting,” Muhammad, who comes from the northwestern city of Masyaf, told Syria Deeply. “Even when I was little, I never played with guns. I wanted to become a singer or an actor. But life does not follow our wishes.”
As fighting intensified between the Assad regime and anti-regime rebel groups, Muhammad eventually joined the National Defense Forces (NDF), part-time volunteer units of the Syrian military. Formed in 2012, the NDF allows Syrians to avoid mandatory military conscription that could send them to the front lines by placing them in Assad-backed armed brigades that protect their hometowns.
According to a 2013 report published by The Carter Center, the NDF has recruited “most of its fighters from minority communities” and is “widely seen as sectarian.”
The report notes, “Much more so than the regular army, they are grounded in their home communities.” It adds, “They have been formed out of the sense of existential threat, perceived by so many of Syria’s minorities.”
Muhammad studied tourism in Damascus, and finished his compulsory military service a few years ago. When the war in Syria broke out, Muhammad was afraid that he might be assigned to reserve military duty. Since students are exempt from military service, Muhammad enrolled in translation classes at a local private university. “I did not pass any of my classes and I paid more than 100,000 Syrian pounds [$400] in tuition over the last two years,” he recalled. “I could not afford it anymore, so I started searching for other options in order to avoid joining a war that I never approved of.”
Muhammad then tried to leave the country. “My friends and I considered leaving the country, and we even considered illegal immigration to Europe,” he explained. “However, when I learned that, in addition to the enormous risks of the trip, it would cost me $7,000, which I did not have, I had to drop the idea.”
The only choice left was for him to join one of the NDF units. As millions of Syrians are enduring displacement within Syria and beyond, and even more find themselves in precarious financial straits, signing up for the local militia provided him with a salary and kept him close to his family.
“The need for men to join the military increases every day. It is compulsory and those who join usually serve in dangerous areas,” said Muhammad. “Therefore, I decided to volunteer and join one of the committees in the same area where my family lives.
“There are National Defense [Forces] offices all over the city. They welcome both men and women, and they pay between 25,000 and 40,000 Syrian pounds [$100–$160] per month, depending on the nature of the task assigned,” explained Muhammad.
Though the number of Syrians enrolled in the NDF is kept confidential and varies from area to area, several of Muhammad’s friends have also joined. “They see it as an opportunity to earn a salary during these hard times,” he commented, adding that women also fight in the committees, often at checkpoints but occasionally as snipers.
Although Muhammad presently lives in the al-Kiswah area, he is usually stationed in the area of Jobar, a municipality in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Because his unit specializes in raids, he says he lives in a state of constant danger.
He recalled an incident he says he will never forget. “We were assigned a special mission. I was very sick, but I could not take the day off. My friends saw how sick I was so they asked me to stay behind in a safe spot,” Muhammad remembered. “Two of my friends got killed that day. I owe my life to them. I am alive because they were good friends.” Like so many Syrians trying to cope with the psychological trauma of war, Muhammad struggles to express how he feels while out on armed missions. “I’ve become conflicted. When I have to shoot, I sometimes close my eyes and hope that my bullets will not hit anyone,” he said. “But other times, especially when one of my friends gets killed, I feel like I want to kill ten terrorists with one bullet.”
“I don’t understand how I can shift so abruptly,” he added, reluctantly. “Maybe I should see a psychologist.” Because Muhammad lives day-to-day and knows that death is always a possibility, he said he decided not to get married because he does not want to leave behind a widow or orphans. “Love is enough for me,” he said, laughing. As hard-line rebel groups such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) battle the regime’s forces across the country, civilians are continually caught in the crossfire and often suffer displacement as a result. Many people fleeing the bloodshed in nearby areas eventually ended up in al-Kiswah.
“After I got to know them, I realized that they are good people and that, for example, those who live in areas controlled by ISIS do not represent or even support the ideology of ISIS,” Muhammad opined.
With the ongoing influx of fighters, weapons and funds to rebel groups in Syria and the brutal methods of the Assad regime continuing without pause, the war in Syria shows no sign of letting up in the near future. In February, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that more than 210,000 Syrians have died since the uprising began in March 2011.
Meanwhile, Muhammad, who as a child dreamed of becoming a singer or an actor, is now forced to carry a weapon. He lives a life that he does not love and he does not know what the future has in store for him. Like many young Syrians, the choice to take up arms was not one he wanted to make.