This profile addresses the topic of military service in Syria, and in particular the situation of draft evaders, military deserters and defectors. For more information on the structure of the Syrian Armed Forces, see The Government of Syria and associated armed groups.
COI summary: overview
[Main COI reference: Targeting, 2]
Male citizens between the age of 18 and 42 are obliged by law to perform their military service. Registered Palestinians residing in Syria are also subject to conscription and usually serve in the ranks of the SAA-affiliated Palestinian Liberation Army. While the law prescribes an age limit of 42 years for conscription, in practice the age limit for military service and reserve duty has been increased and men in their late 40s and early 50s were have also been forced to sign up. The age limit is less dependent on the universal draft than on the government’s mobilising efforts and local developments. Therefore, the Syrian authorities are usually following younger people between the age of 18 and 27 more closely, while older people tend to avoid the recruitment more easily. [Targeting, 2.1]
The law permits exemptions from military service categories of individuals as described below. However, the process for obtaining an exemption was assessed to include more limitations and more variation on case-by-case basis [Targeting, 2.2]. In practice, the exemptions are not consistently applied. There are also reports that returnees have been conscripted despite promises that they would be exempted [Targeting, 1.3.5]. The following are possible exemptions and deferrals according to the law:
According to Law No 35/2011, which amended the military conscription Law No 30 of 2007, military service lasts between 18 to 21 months. However, since the outbreak of the conflict, most conscripts have not been discharged even after their compulsory military service has been fulfilled and had to continue their service. Only a few of the earliest classes of conscripts, which had been in service since early 2011, were being demobilised [Targeting, 2.1].
In recaptured areas, the part of the population that chose to stay in an area covered by a reconciliation agreement, underwent a ‘sorting out of affairs’ or legalising one’s status (‘taswiyat al-wada’). This process primarily concerns two things: firstly, if they have been part of an armed group that has fought GoS, authorities must clarify whether they would be allowed to stay, and, if so, on what terms; secondly, men of conscription age must serve in the military, and those called up for service in the reserve force must complete it [Recaptured areas, 2.5]. In the areas in the south, where reconciliation agreements were signed, local agreements included a conscription ‘grace period’ of six months to take care of practical matters before starting one’s period of military service [Recaptured areas, 2.7]. Those who did not report voluntarily risked being arrested and forcibly enlisted. There were reports that the GoS resumed conscription earlier than the grace period prescribed by the terms of the agreements, in some cases within weeks of reasserting control over reconciled areas [IDPs and returnees, 3.4.4; Security 2020, 18.104.22.168; Targeting 1.2.3]. Conscription campaigns and arrests of persons suspected of draft evasion were reported, for example, in Rural Damascus and Dar’a [Security 2020, 22.214.171.124; Recaptured areas, 126.96.36.199].
According to a study documenting the security situation of returnees and others living in areas covered by reconciliation agreements, conscripted persons are ‘almost inevitably sent to the most dangerous frontlines’ [Targeting, 2].
Dar’a is one of the places in Syria where Russia has had the strongest influence on the reconciliation agreement, and among the places where many former rebels chose to stay, unlike in other parts of Syria. Civilians of military age were required to perform their military service either in the army, in intelligence services or in the NDF. By enlisting in the Fourth Division, men were promised to remain inside Dar’a governorate and to not be sent to fight elsewhere. Hundreds of reconciled fighters and civilians joined the Fourth Division and other government-affiliated forces, notably the Fifth Corps, to avoid drafting by the SAA. In December 2018, sources reported that the government had begun to incorporate several militias into the official military structures. If fully implemented, joining a militia may no longer allow an individual to avoid military conscription, nor for him to avoid deployment to distant frontlines. Several sources also reported arrest campaigns in Dar’a, including of individuals who signed reconciliation agreements with GoS. Many of these campaigns were mainly focused on persons wanted for draft evasion [Targeting, 2.1; Recaptured areas, 188.8.131.52].
In Homs governorate, a significant number of reconciled combatants were also incorporated into the Fifth Corps, 4th Brigade. They were deployed in the desert around Palmyra with minimal training and equipment, where they reportedly suffered severe losses [Security 2020, 184.108.40.206].
In Qamishli, Hasaka governorate, where the GoS retains partial control on the ground, it has conducted conscription campaigns. The SDF has been unwilling to cooperate in this regard and as of November 2019, had the ability to prevent the Syrian Government from exercising these activities on the ground in northern Syria. After the agreement between the SDF and GoS in mid-October 2019 that saw GoS troops deployed in previously Kurdish-controlled areas, it was reported that Syrian Kurds from the area fled to Iraq out of fear of being conscripted in the SAA. [Targeting, 2.1]
There are also reports of family members of those evading military service and deserters facing retaliation by GoS in the form of intimidation and arrest [Targeting, 1.3.6, 2].
Military service in Syria may trigger exclusion considerations. In terms of what excludable acts military service may involve, see The Government of Syria and associated armed groups under Exclusion.
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