By: Christopher Kozak
After three years of grueling warfare against armed opposition fighters, the Syrian regime faces a dire internal crisis not witnessed since the initial months of the conflict. Defections, desertions, and over 44,000 combat fatalities have reduced the Syrian Arab Army from a pre-war high of 325,000 soldiers to an estimated 150,000 battle-tested yet war-weary troops. Despite reinforcement from tens of thousands of foreign volunteers, Lebanese Hezbollah militants, and pro-government militias, regime forces have proven unable to decisively overcome rebel brigades on the battlefield. These pressures were only exacerbated by the withdrawal of thousands of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen from Syria in June 2014 redeployed to counter the ongoing ISIS offensive in Iraq. At the same time, key demographics within the President Bashar al-Assad’s support base – including the Alawite population – have exhibited growing signs of dissatisfaction with the Syrian regime. Pre-existing grievances related to repression and social inequities have merged with high casualty counts and rising economic stress to fuel a sense of exhaustion among regime supporters. Faced with both a war-weary populace and a burgeoning manpower deficit that threatens its survival, the Syrian regime has resorted to a nation-wide forced conscription campaign – threatening to further split the regime from its base. Charting the contours of this program and its interaction with growing discontent within pro-regime elements of the Syrian population will prove critical for understanding the future state of pro-regime forces and the overall trajectory of the conflict in Syria.
The Regime Conscription Campaign
The Syrian Constitution enshrines compulsory military service as a “sacred duty” for every Syrian citizen. Young men aged 18 or older must serve an eighteen-month tour as a conscript soldier and remain eligible for recall in the army reserves until the age of forty. However, reports indicate that the avoidance of this legal obligation has reached staggering levels. Activists in the southern Druze-majority province of as-Suwayda, for example, claimed that only 450 out of 8,000 eligible youth enrolled for military service in 2012 while only 250 out of 7,000 eligible conscripts enlisted in the reserves during the same period. Thousands of young Syrian men have entered into hiding in rural areas far from urban centers, fled to opposition-held areas to evade the reach of regime security services, or utilized the smuggling networks built by Syrian refugees in order leave the country for Lebanon, Turkey, or Egypt. To surmount this challenge, the regime has engineered a series of incentives, administrative decrees, and crackdowns which include:
1. Large-Scale Mobilization of Reserves: In the second half of October 2014, the regime announced an unprecedented series of army reserve activations in several major urban centers. On October 20 the regime issued a general mobilization of all reservists born in or after 1984 in the city of Hama, with activists reporting over 1,500 men detained for service at checkpoints or during raids over a four-day period. Activists and eyewitnesses reported that the regime conducted a similar operation in Homs city over the same time period, arresting roughly 1,200 men. Another general mobilization began in Deir ez-Zour city, a zone of active conflict between the regime and ISIS, on October 27. Generally, these mobilizations were preceded by reinvigorated regime attempts to enroll thousands of former conscripts into the reserves. Lists of ‘reserves to be mobilized’ numbering up to 70,000 names circulated to checkpoints across Syria, threatening both local residents and internally-displaced persons from eastern Syria with redeployment. Interestingly, the regime has refrained from conducting large-scale reserve mobilizations in core support zones such as Damascus or the Alawite coast, where it has limited itself to recalling reservists in designated “specific and critical” specialties such as heavy artillery or aircraft support.
2. Checkpoints and Raids in Regime-Held Urban Centers: The regime has complemented its reserve mobilizations with concentrated crackdowns on young men attempting to avoid compulsory military service. Military police, intelligence branch officers, and National Defense Force militia have employed mobile checkpoints and raids in regime-held areas in almost every Syrian province – from regime-held neighborhoods of Aleppo city in the north to Dera’a in the south, and from Latakia and Tartus along the Alawite coast to Hasaka in the east. These activities are not a new phenomenon: the Syrian Network for Human Rights catalogued over 5,400 arrests for military conscription during the first seven months of 2014, averaging almost 170 detainees per week. However, the regime has reportedly started to take stricter measures to target men avoiding military service. Regime forces now conduct raids on buses, cafes, and other venues frequented by young men instead of relying on fixed checkpoints. In some cases, security officials have conducted violent house-by-house searches in entire neighborhoods and detained any youths with improper documentation. Extortion and corruption are endemic, with National Defense Force militiamen reportedly charging young men or their parents up to 600,000 Syrian pounds ($3,300) to avoid detainment. Men conscripted into military service during these arrests often receive minimal training, in some cases being deployed to frontline fighting positions within days of their detention.
3. Incentivizing Enrollment in Volunteer Militias: The regime has also promoted voluntary service in the National Defense Forces. Ba’ath Brigades, or other pro-government militias as an alternative to conscription or reserve duty in the Syrian Arab Army. National Defense Force offices have opened in several areas targeted by conscription campaigns, tempting young men to volunteer in exchange for a monthly salary ranging from 25,000 to 35,000 Syrian pounds, a security card which waives detainment for military service, and an opportunity to serve in one’s hometown. Although occasional reports have emerged of detainees being forced to sign two-year NDF contracts, the majority of pro-regime militiamen appear to be volunteers taking advantage of these incentive structures. Despite regime promises to the contrary, however, National Defense Forces members are often deployed to active fronts – especially in zones where the regime feels pressure to augment its forces.
4. Administrative Rules to Prevent Emigration: The regime passed several decrees in Fall 2014 which restricted the ability of military-aged males to leave the country and avoid mandatory service. Since the start of the uprising in 2011, the Syrian government has required that men between the ages of 18 and 42 provide a statement from a recruitment division indicating an official exemption from service before being authorized to travel abroad. However, on October 20 – concurrent with the start of major reserve mobilizations – the General Mobilization Administration of the Department of Defense banned all men born between 1985 and 1991 from exiting the country for any reason. Meanwhile, another new regulation ordered all authorized travelers to pay a 50,000 Syrian pound deposit returnable upon reentry to the country in order to ensure that the traveler is not attempting to flee.
5. Tapping Previously Protected Populations: Finally, the regime’s conscription campaign has tapped into populations which had so far been insulated from the full brunt of mandatory conscription. University students are one such population. While students had previously been able to defer military service by extending their studies, the regime has begun to erect checkpoints near universities in Damascus, Dera’a, Homs, and Latakia Provinces to detain young men for military service. Students at Latakia University, for example, have sardonically renamed the roundabout in front of the college to ‘Reserves Roundabout’ after 200 students were arrested at a nearby checkpoint between October 20 and November 20. Other youths began returning to their homes after dormitory managers began preparing detailed lists of students which were seen as an initial census for military enrollment. In a further step to target degree-holders, on November 25 the regime announced that state institutions will only hire employees who have completed military service regardless of their educational background. Another new recruitment pool is drawn from state employees. New regulations threaten government employees with five-year prison sentences, fines, and immediate dismissal if they refuse to enroll in compulsory military service. Civil servants, teachers, and even employees of state-run bakeries must present proof of enrollment in the army reserves in order to collect their salaries, with their eligibility cross-checked against lists compiled by their agencies.
Discontent within Regime-Friendly Populations
The progressively heavy-handed measures taken by the regime are a telling indicator of the precarious nature of the regime’s war effort. Equally noteworthy, however, are the increasingly public displays of discontent within traditionally pro-regime populations, particularly the Alawite and Druze minorities. Initial stirrings of public dissent began in late August after ISIS militants overran regime forces at the Tabqa Airbase in ar-Raqqah Province and executed over 160 soldiers, sparking a largely-Alawite social media campaign decrying the lack of transparency and competency demonstrated by senior military officials. The most major infection point, however, occurred on October 2 when twin car bombings against an elementary school in the majority-Alawite neighborhood of Ekrama in Homs city brought hundreds of protestors to the streets and forced the regime to sack two high-ranking security officials. This loss of faith in regime institutions came to the fore once again on December 9, when residents the Alawite town of Masyaf in Hama Province held a mass demonstration after rumors that ISIS forces had captured the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport raised fears of a second Tabqa massacre.
In the majority-Alawite Syrian Coast provinces of Latakia and Tartus, long considered the Assad regime’s heartland, dissent regarding declining living conditions, rising fuel prices, and the disproportionate share of Syrian combat casualties suffered by local residents has been exacerbated by calls for additional conscription, sparking small-scale protests throughout the Syrian Coast against the regime and rebels alike. In several cases, displaced Syrians living in Latakia city have exchanged live gunfire with regime security forces raiding their neighborhoods to search for recruits. Despite a regime crackdown, activist groups such as the “Free Syrian Alawites” and “Harakat Ansar al-Watan” [Movement of Supporters of the Homeland] continue to circulate pamphlets urging residents to refuse military service or abandon the Assad regime. This message has apparently been well-received. Even staunchly pro-regime families have reportedly sent their military-aged children as far afield as Alawite enclaves in Lebanon in order to avoid the draft, while the regime has been forced to close passenger terminals at the Tartus port in an attempt to stem the exodus of young men from the country.
In the majority-Druze province of as-Suwayda in southern Syria the antagonizing nature of regime conscription has been even starker, with Druze elders and residents actively organizing targeted resistance to compulsory military service. After a group of elders stormed a regime barracks and freed approximately 450 young men who had been detained for military service in December 2013, the regime accepted a ‘tacit agreement’ with as-Suwayda’s Druze population to prevent further mass arrest campaigns in exchange for compliance. Over the past two months, however, several regime conscription patrols have been beaten and expelled by residents of Druze villages who accused the Syrian armed forces of deploying Druze conscripts to the heaviest zones of fighting. In another sign of escalating tensions, Druze villagers attacked a regime security post on December 12 and kidnapped an intelligence officer in an attempt to free a local man arrested for military service. The Druze have also conducted street protests against the deteriorating economic situation in province, including the announcement of a major sit-in in front of the Ayn al-Zaman shrine in Suwayda city to be held on December 12.
The dueling incentives driving the conscription campaign as well as increased dissent from within pro-regime populations present the Syrian security apparatus with an insoluble paradox. Sustaining combat operations in the context of a war-weary populace is a mission doomed to failure. The regime clearly understands the threat posed by the interplay between these two dynamics and has modified its program accordingly, avoiding mass reservist mobilizations in core support zones and striking deals in areas with a demonstrated resolve to revolt against mandatory service. However, increasing displays of passive and active resistance to the regime provide an early indicator that the Assad regime cannot contain these opposing forces in the long-term. If the United States can successfully exploit the developing gap between the regime and its supporters, it may find the space needed to negotiate a settlement which could witness the exit of President al-Assad – a necessary step towards neutralizing Syria as a haven for ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Salafi-jihadist groups which pose a critical threat to the region.