KALMAR, Sweden – Residents of the Syrian capital report that government forces are detaining large numbers of young men at checkpoints across the city.
Although there is no way to verify the claims, there is widespread speculation the government is using the checkpoints to forcibly conscript new soldiers into Bashar al-Assad’s badly depleted army. Government supporters have suggested the increase in checkpoint stops of young men is part of the military’s annual conscription campaign.
According to Syrian law, every male between 18 and 42 is required to serve a two-year stint in the army, except for those who obtain an official permit to postpone their service while at university. A few find ways to postpone or avoid service altogether by paying a hefty bribe.
As the Syrian army and its allied militias continue their push to retake land lost to rebels in strategic parts of the country, residents in Damascus told Syria Deeply that government troops are detaining more military-aged men at checkpoints than in previous months to add to Assad’s depleted ranks.
Um Khalid, a 48-year-old mother from al-Midanneighborhood, said her son was detainedat a checkpoint on November 16.
Khalid, she said, a softly spoken 23-year-old university student, left home early that evening to escort his girlfriend home. Later that night, after Khalid had been missing for hours, his girlfriend called Khalid’s family. Their taxi had been stopped at a government checkpoint, she told them. Khalid had been arrested for evading military service.
“I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to,” said Um Khalid. “My son has a permit to postpone his mandatory military service that is valid until March 2016, but when I asked the [army’s] Recruitment Division, they told me that his permit was valid and that they had no other information,” she said.
Raed, a 22-year-old studying social science at Damascus University, said that he and his friends have also noticed a recent increase in detentions atcheckpoints throughout the city.
“In the past, military officers at checkpoints would ask young men whether they had permits to postpone their service, but most of the time, they would not ask to see the permits,” said Raed. “Recently, though, they’ve been asking for everyone’s permit and looking it up in their database.”
Raed said he’s stopped going out at night altogether because of the checkpoints. Even though he has permission to postpone his service, he doesn’t want to run the risk.
“They’re trying to make up for the low numbers,” said Raed. “So many would-be recruits have fled the country or found some other way to dodge their mandatory service. They’ll take anyone.”
According to Amnesty International’s latest report, there have been 65,000 documented cases of government-sponsored disappearances in Syria since 2011, including 58,000 civilians. But while Amnesty said it is aware of residents’ growing fear regarding new checkpoints, it is unclear how many, if any, of the abductions accounted for in their report were related to enforced military service.
One soldier who mans checkpoints in the capital said there is nothing abnormal about checking for young men who are dodging the draft. His orders, he said, are to verify identification cards and determine whether or not individuals are ducking their obligatory service.
“It is our duty as Syrians to serve our country,” said Khalil from Jableh, a mostly Alawite city near Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia, who preferred to keep his rank and brigade confidential. “I find it strange that we have to force some people to serve. I completed my mandatory service years ago, but I joined the voluntary service when I felt that my country was in need of men.”
It’s all part of the annual draft, he said.
However, several of the young men interviewed by Syria Deeply said one reason they are scared of being conscripted is that the army often indefinitely extends soldiers’ tours of duty beyond the two-year limit.
Ibrahim, a 32-year-old mechanical engineer, completed his mandatory military service in 2009, but was summoned in 2012 to serve another tour of duty. As of December 2015, he was still serving.
“I thought my re-enlistment wouldn’t be long, but it’s lasted four years already,” he said.
Ibrahim said his case is far from unusual. “Every year we hear rumors they’ll let soldiers go home, but nothing happens,” he said. “The regime has lost many soldiers in this war. They need men. This is why they won’t let us go.”
Syrian soldiers are also dying at an extremely high rate. According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 52,077 of the more than 250,000 people killed since the beginning of the war in Syria have been Syrian army soldiers.
With Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and now Russian troops helping Assad’s army on the ground, the government has clearly been in search of extra manpower.
Fadi, a 26-year-old with an M.A. in Arabic fromthe University of Damascus, said he hasn’t left home in weeks because his permit to postpone military service expires in March 2016.
“The problem is that the university sends a list with the names of the students who graduated to the Recruitment Division, and the Recruitment Division sends these lists to all checkpoints. This means that although my permit does not expire until March, my name is already at all the checkpoints,” he said.
Fadi explained that he now plans to leave the country as soon as possible and has already begun coordinating with a people smuggler.
“I never wanted to leave my country,” he said. “It’s either I leave or I join the war. The regime has left me no other choice.”
Aziz, a 22-year-old who finished his undergraduate studies in Damascus this year, said he fled the country last month because of the increased checkpoints. “Although they prefer skilled and experienced people, they summoned everyone who physically qualified,” he said.
“Things were unpredictable. Security officers would stop buses with lists of names in their hands. It was too risky to stay.”
Back in al-Midan, Um Khalid is still hoping to hear from her son. “I just want to know where he is,” she said.
Top image: In this photo taken on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, a Syrian army armored vehicle moves near the village of Morek in Syria. The Syrian army has launched an offensive this week in central and northwestern Syria aided by Russian airstrikes. (AP Photo/Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Photo via AP)