The Syrian youth begin to panic over military service at the end of May every year, when campaigns start to circulate the names of draft evaders to the competent authorities. Those arrested are taken to the designated gathering area in the city, where everyone gets sorted and moved to an army checkpoint. Some are arrested at checkpoints when their personal ID’s are checked.
Escaping military service is an ideal choice for many young men. Some of Syria’s young men reject the idea of fighting completely, others do not want to waste their lives on the fronts or risk dying as martyrs, while others still refuse to become a pawn on the Syrian regime’s board.
In the question relating to “Defending the Homeland”, there is a terrible reality for Syrians. Some Syrians believe in defending their homeland, even if the enemy is a brother Syrian. Thanks to decades of Ba’athist and dictatorial civil education, many Syrians seem to have been completely brain-washed, creating an ideal result of fear of the other who is different, as if the rule of another president would destroy the country! Many Syrians actually believe this, as if the country had not been already destroyed!
The regime has been keen on encouraging the sectarian upbringing method, which some deny, but this in truth has contributed to this deepening fear of the other. Driven by these fears, many join the Syrian army, consensually, to fight their brothers, either out of fear for their loved ones or when there are no other options, when it’s either join or escape! Here are the stories of Syrian young men about the compulsory military service in Syria.
Escaping the Military Service
Many have escaped Syria through Lebanon or Turkey on a long journey to Europe, or have decided to stay there instead of continuing to Europe. “I don’t want to waste my life over a pointless war belonging to a brutal regime. I reject the option of fighting. I am meant to live my life elsewhere, and I am in Germany today to live a safe life and achieve success in my career,” Nawras, a young Syrian man, tells Daraj. But survival far away from home is not that easy. Those who escaped from their country can only see the kind faces of their families through monitors, and they may never meet their mothers and fathers ever again, which is why Issam (an alias) expresses his hatred for this regime even more, because it deprived him of spending the last moments with his father, who died a year ago. “We don’t just hate the regime for its actions, although we have the right to do so, we also hate it because it ruined our memories and destroyed those precious moments with our families,” He tells Daraj.
The officer behind Samer (alias) and his companions were shouting at the soldiers encouraging them to kill, but Samer was shooting bullets away from the civilians, once behind their feet and once over their heads. He has not killed anyone in the past few years but was injured twice. “You know that there is an international law called “the right of conscientious objection”, under which you may refuse to conduct hostilities or use force to kill?” Samer asked, “But do you think that the authorities here recognize something like this? I never wanted to kill anyone, especially not a Syrian civilian!”
“I have been hiding in my city like a mouse for ten years, I never traveled to any other city, this drafting evasion has disturbed my entire life.” Mazen (alias) is living his life as a fugitive, taking long ways to avoid military checkpoints. He has not been able to get any governmental transaction done or get married, all of which require a paper from the Recruitment Division. He could not emigrate and got stuck in Syria, refusing to join the military service, but he did not know that the consequences of this decision were worse than what he had expected. Today, he looks back at the ten years of his life that passed by without him being able to do a simple thing, and the matter has not ended yet. He lives constantly feeling like he made the wrong decision. If he had joined the military service, he would have finished it by now, of course given that he made it through the war without getting killed in a clash. “Those ten years would have passed anyway, in the army or outside of it, now what should I do?” He asked jokingly.
But things are not that simple, those draft evaders live in constant fear, and an endless escape, fearing to be caught at any moment.
The regime has been keen on encouraging a sectarian upbringing method, which in truth has contributed to this deepening fear of the other.
In his village in the Syrian south, Alaa (alias) had a friend inside the recruitment division, who used to warn him whenever a patrol went out to arrest a few young men, which would prompt him to hide for two or three days at a friend’s house. Alaa chose this life, however difficult it may be, cultivating his father’s land and selling his own produce to the villagers, watering his tomato and aubergines, and saying, “When I watch my crops grow, I know I made the right decision.”
On the other hand, some people try to alleviate their pain through art, amid the alienation of Syrian youth. When my friend went on to pursue his passion for art and theater, he created a small theater group, rehearsing almost daily, listening to music, talking about writing, and, despite his difficult situation, and his inability to pursue his career as a teacher because he evaded the draft, or get a good job, this type of life reduced the burden of his instability. He used to explain to us the details of his exhaustion through making secure maps that did not pass through checkpoints, and laugh at the distances he had to walk to the place where we used to act, dance and read plays.
On the other hand, there are other ways of circumventing, with young Syrians extending their university studies for as long as possible, intentionally failing in their senior year, to gain an additional year of freedom through a “Certificate of Enrollment” that postpones their military service, but since this ruse has been figured out they are now not entitled to fail for more than three years. “It’s absurd,” Ali said, “to know the answer to all the questions and answer them wrongly, so as not to join the military service.”
Because young people cannot follow this approach for a long time, they are forced to pursue their post-graduate studies if their grades are high enough, and some may resort to registering in virtual universities, as the registration fees may be too high in some cases.
Reading a Book Amid the Ruin
Emad (alias) is one of the young men who joined the military service because he had no other choice, especially with his poor financial condition. Thanks to someone’s mediation, he managed to perform his service away from the battle areas, at a checkpoint in Daraa City. On the wall of his small residence, he made two wooden shelves, on which he arranged his books, hanging his gun beneath them. After finishing his duty, he’d go to his residence, to read a book and or write some poetry. The new recruit’s activities had initially provoked the inspection point officer, but when he made sure that the books were not political, and that they were novels and poems about love and humanity, he forgot about the matter. Some recruits joke about his books and his peaceful, neutral nature, but he does not care, explaining, “Reading protected me, the place would have definitely changed me, but the books really kept me away from the pollution of the outside.” While his companions were looting some of what passing vehicles were carrying, whether it was food, vegetables, or even electric heaters, and demanding money from the trucks who had not done inspections, Emad was in a different world, reading a poem about freedom in his residence.
The Only Child Treatment
“Young men between the ages of 18 and 42 must join compulsory military service for a period of one and a half to two years, in theory. This means that all Syrian men who do not suffer from an incurable disease or significant physical disability are required to perform the two military services, regular and reserve, when called upon them, except for only children, who do not have brothers.” This law announced by the Syrian constitution shows hope for many young men whose parents tried to bring them a brother but failed, and at the time cursed their luck when they had a girl. That’s how those young men became “only children”, while their parents never thought this trait would save them from being involved in the harshest war in the region.
My friend’s mother always tells him, “I wish I had brought you a brother to help you out in this life” and he sarcastically replies: “Why would you say that? Had you brought me a brother, one of us would have died a martyr and the second would have joined the military service” then he adds, “I really thank God. I can’t imagine myself in this whirl that my friends keep talking about.”
The “only child” is now considered gifted, friends secretly envy him and he has better chances in relation to marriage. It is no secret that the chances of young men to be accepted for marriage by a girl rise if they are only children or have ended their military service. Young Syrian women can’t imagine years of marriage passing them by while their husbands are gone, fighting on the front and maybe martyred at any moment. However, the process that grants an only child his freedom is not easy and takes time, effort and medical health to ensure the mother’s inability to have other children. Even the possibility of having another boy threatens the young man’s chance to be exempted from the military service.
Only One Week of Reserve Service
On the other hand, there are those almost seemingly fictional stories whose characters ended up being extremely lucky. When George (alias) was called up for his reserve service, the mourning had already begun in his home before he even joined the army, because he is the only supporter of his elderly parents, his wife and his two children. Despite all the crying, supplication and prayers, George joined the military service. When he was on the plane that took him from Damascus to Qamishli, a decision was issued by the General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces stipulating the termination of the retention and summons for the ranks of officers, the retained individuals, and the civil reserves born in 1981 and earlier. When the plane landed, George started to receive messages and calls in celebration of the end of his service that had not started in the first place. His luck had him literally spending his reserve service period in the sky. So, he stayed in Qamishli for a week to finish his exemption papers then he returned to his wife and his family triumphant.
“I don’t want to waste my life over a pointless war belonging to a brutal regime. I reject the option of fighting. I am meant to live my life elsewhere.”
But stories do not always have happy endings. Salim (alias), for example, escaped for 20 days then returned to join the military service. When the last demobilization decision was issued, Salim was not included because he had escaped for 20 days. Today, after years spent in the military service, he is still waiting for a new decision that has definitely taken way too long to be issued.
Female Soldiers Are Better Than Male Soldiers
The first announcement for the formation of a female combatant faction was in the city of Homs, where about 500 women joined the “Lionesses of National Defense” and after a short period of training that did not exceed a month, they entered the battlefield.
Girls and women have their own reasons to join the military service without any obligations, and the official announcement offers the option for women to join if they want to. Some women joined the military service because they had lost one of their brothers in the war, so they chose this way to get revenge. Others joined, as mentioned, in the belief that they would really protect their homeland from destruction, a very utopian idea amid the Syrian nightmare.
The female soldiers’ reputation seemed to be better than the male soldiers. The residents of the areas where female soldiers were responsible for the checkpoints observed a kinder treatment than that of the male soldiers!
On the other hand, the female soldiers also played direct combat roles, as happened on the outskirts of the capital in the battles of the city of Jobar, utilizing light and heavy weapons and leading tanks and even snipers, especially in the Commando Brigade in the Republican Guard, where they fought battles in Jobar.
The idea of defending the homeland is appealing, but in reality, it is crueler than it appears, and despite these stories, there are soldiers who joined the Syrian army out of their own free will, killed fellow Syrians, and triumphed in favor of a concept that was forcibly incurred on them, and their stories were proudly told, narrated as if they were brave heroes. There are soldiers and officers who stole entire villages and cities and sold them for a small price. Many Syrians struggle with the idea of patriotism, because patriotism has pushed many to kill, steal, and loot, with what is left behind not boding well, and what remains is just ruins and looted cities.