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2.2. Persons who evaded or deserted military service

Common analysis
Last updated: September 2020

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:

 Students: Students at universities may, under certain conditions, be exempted from military service, although a 2017 change in law has made it more difficult for university students to continue deferring their conscription. Amendments made to the Military Service Law in July 2019 by Legislative Decree No.12 introduced more restrictions on the age limits allowed to start different levels of education, as well as the number of study years during which students are permitted to request exemption from military service. Persons who have reached the age of 27 are usually not given deferrals by the military police. Students applying for a deferral from military service face more scrutiny than before, while students without proper documentation are conscripted immediately. [Targeting, 2.2.1]
 Government employees: Government employees, particularly those working in Damascus and in the government ministries, are normally not recruited for military service. Those government employees who were in fact recruited to the Syrian army usually consisted of reservists who have been called to reserve duty to resume their former tasks. In November 2017, a new directive from the Prime Minister which applied to state employees instructed public institutions to ‘terminate the employment of those avoiding mandatory military service or reserve duty’. The directive was followed by an unknown number of dismissals. [Targeting, 2.2.2]    
 Medical cases: Reliable information concerning medical reasons for exemption from military service is difficult to obtain. However, there are reports that even old and obese men, who in the past would have been exempted relatively easily, were conscripted if required by the authorities. It was also noted as probable that a person would not be given an exemption unless his medical condition was very clearly visible. A source also pointed out that in some cases it was possible for an individual to get an exemption based on medical grounds if a bribe was paid. [Targeting, 2.2.3]
 Only sons: The only male child of his parents can be exempted from military service. The exemption is also applicable if the parents of the only son are divorced, or if one or both parents are deceased. In addition, an only son will be exempted if he has half-brothers or has become an only male child as a result of the death of one or more of his brothers. Legislative Decree No 33, issued on 6 August 2014, which amends a number of articles of Legislative Decree No 30 of 2007 on the mandatory military service law, altered the number of sons per family who may postpone military service, with the numbers becoming as follows: ‘1 may postpone if 2-4 brothers were performing mandatory, voluntary, or reserve military service, 2 if there were 5-8 brothers in the military service, and 3 if there were 9 or more brothers in the service’. Before the amendments, only one son could postpone. A family’s only son can still benefit from the exemption regulation, but the GoS has been tightening controls on this. Instead of renewing the exemption every two years, the person concerned is obliged to renew it every single year until his mother reaches the age when she is not expected to be able to give birth to another child (approximately by the age of 50, according to the source). [Targeting, 2.2.4]
■ Paying an exception fee and risk of conscription even after paying the fee: According to Law 30/2007, Syrian young men, including registered Palestinians from Syria, can pay a fee (‘Badal al-Naqdi’) to get an exemption from compulsory military service and they are not to be called up again. Since 2007, this decree has been amended several times, latest in 2014 and 2017. The exemption fee applies to a male living abroad for no less than four years. The fee was USD 5 000 before the war and rose to approximately USD 8 000 later. Not only persons who left the country legally, but also those who left illegally can be exempted from their military service obligations. The deadline for paying the fee is three months after receiving the call for conscription. However, such arrangements are being implemented differently on a case-by-case basis and they in no way constitute a guarantee against forced conscription. The only real exemption was given to either someone beyond the military service age or to someone who completed military service already. Although, in both cases being called up (again) during the conflict remains an eventuality. The use of exemption fee is often linked with corruption, bribery and discretionary application. [Targeting, 2.2.5]

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,; 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,; Recaptured areas,].

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,].

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,].

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.