The Syrian dictator’s army isn’t as loyal as you might think. Here’s a way to use that against him.
The popular narrative of the Syrian civil war is that of an apocalyptic conflict between two sets of diehard fanatics: The Sunni jihadists on one side, the Assad regime’s loyal soldiers on the other. But the reality on the ground is much more nuanced. Many Syrian recruits would like to avoid army service, but, for various reasons, are unable to do so. Their presence within the ranks of the regime doesn’t necessarily mean that they support it.
This situation represents a missed opportunity. While Western analysts repeatedly call for arming the opposition and establishing no-fly zones, there has been no emphasis whatsoever on establishing incentives that could encourage desertions among government troops and pro-government militias. Such desertions, if large enough, would significantly weaken the regime and make it more amenable to negotiations.
Army service is mandatory for all 18-year-old Syrian men, with postponements allowed only for post-secondary studies, eldest sons whose fathers are deceased, and a few other cases. According to Amnesty International, Syrians who avoid conscription face to up to 15 years in prison, though they are often pardoned and sent back to the barracks. As a result, there are countless stories of young men who are forcibly recruited despite their opposition to the regime. Others join militias for purely economic reasons.
The late Ahmad, a former civil engineering student from Latakia, fell into the latter category. As the revolution against Assad’s rule began in 2011, he watched videos of protests on the internet, hoping to someday join one of them. But his mother had died giving birth to him, his father was permanently disabled, and he was so poor that he could not afford the bus ticket to go to campus every morning. In 2012, he abandoned his studies and joined the Desert Falcons, a loyalist militia that granted him $125 per month to cover his sister’s college tuition and his father’s medications.
When given the choice, Syrians tend to volunteer for such paramilitary groups (often financed by wealthy businessmen) rather than joining the army, since the wages are at least double and they are generally allowed to serve near their homes. Ahmad was not so lucky as to remain in Latakia. The young man was killed near Palmyra earlier this year, defending the regime he had hated.
Draft dodging is a common practice for many young Syrians who are not eager to die for the regime, even when they oppose the Islamist character of much of the opposition. Some live in hiding in their own neighborhoods for years, evading military patrols. Others prefer to flee to the countryside, away from the “flying checkpoints” the regime sets up to track down draft dodgers in the cities.
Ayman, who hailed from an Alawite coastal village, obtained his BA in 2011, but somehow managed to avoid conscription for another two years. As the revolution raged, he spray-painted the walls in local villages with revolutionary slogans while working on his family’s olive and tobacco farm. But in April 2013, he ran out of options, and the army finally took him.
As a poor rural youth, he couldn’t afford to flee to Europe, to bribe an official to delete his name from the reserve list, or even to pay the $300 it would take to get a six-month postponement. The socioeconomic gap between those who can avoid the draft and those who cannot is obvious in the streets of the port city of Tartus, where the “martyrs” posters, so prevalent everywhere else, are conspicuously missing in the most affluent neighborhoods.
Ayman’s story, too, is a sad one. For three years, his mental health deteriorated as he served in an army he did not support. In the end, he was killed by opposition forces in the battle for Aleppo last August. His is just one story among countless others young Syrians whose lives were cut short by coercive enlistment.
Amer Suleiman (the only real name I can use in this story) hailed from Bustan al-Hammam, a mountain village near the port of Baniyas. He dreamed of becoming a guitarist, but life had other plans: He was forced to suspend his musical education to join the army in 2011. Suleiman was dispatched to an opposition-held neighborhood in Qusayr, north of Homs. But he made a point of shooting into the air whenever he was supposed to fire his weapon. His commanders thought him mentally disturbed and had him transferred to an administrative office.
Suleiman was granted a brief reprieve when he received a leave permit in 2012. He returned to Baniyas and started teaching guitar lessons, but it didn’t last. He was soon recalled and sent to Qusayr once again. In May 2013, when he heard of a massacre perpetrated by the Syrian army and its allied militias in al-Bayda, Suleiman called his family to donate some of his clothes and savings to the displaced. A few days later, he was killed by a rebel shell.
Needless to say, not all army recruiting in Syria is coerced. The army and the pro-regime militias do have many loyal soldiers in addition to the gangsters and criminals who have managed to enrich and empower themselves over five years of conflict. But it’s important to highlight the widespread instances of coercive recruitment and the limited options available to rank-and-file combatants because they offer a lever the outside world has not yet tried to use.
The regional and international powers that claim to be interested in resolving the conflict — in addition to the numerous international NGOs that work in the region — should target young Syrians like Ahmad, Ayman, and Amer with psychological and financial assistance programs. In regime-held Syria, this would naturally have to be done covertly.
For a number of ideological, political, and sectarian reasons, many draft-dodgers and reluctant recruits would never join the armed opposition even if promised better wages. But providing them with financial assistance and, if needed, safe passage to flee the country, would allow them to desert or to evade the draft in the first place, depleting the ranks of those willing to die for Assad. It is relatively easy to deliver cash from Lebanon to regime-held territories via couriers, and safe passage to Lebanon could be made possible by bribing Syrian border officials. Alternatively, deserters could leave for Turkey, provided that its Western allies pressure Ankara to open the border crossings and ensure the safety of those who would escape through opposition-held territories.
But it’s not only a matter of financial or even logistical support. Greater international awareness of the plight of Syrian draft-dodgers could contribute to organized pressure on Syrian military institutions, just as in the case of the conscientious objectors (sarvanim) in Israel. There have been numerous cases of organized refusal to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, particularly among reservists. Sarvanim activist groups have petitioned British courts to issue arrest warrants against IDF war criminals and have also provided financial support to the families of incarcerated refusers. Their resistance became a matter of public debate not only in Israel but also internationally. In Syria, on the other hand, those who are reluctant to serve are afraid to even share their names.
Out of an army that originally numbered over than 300,000 men, an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 Syrian soldiers have deserted since the outbreak of the uprising in 2011, although only a minority has subsequently joined the opposition. These defections have not led to the collapse of the regime because they were restricted to individual instances rather than entire divisions. Some have argued that these desertions have left the Syrian army with only the most committed troops — but the examples I’ve cited indicate otherwise.
Russia’s direct military support of Assad, which began a year ago, has strengthened the dictator’s hand to the point that he feels no need to accept compromises or take part in serious peace talks. But if a large portion of his army began to disappear, Syria’s brutal regime might reconsider its prospects for victory.
Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images