Syrian public sector employees fired in latest government conscription effort

AMMAN: Anas Muhammad had a normal life until last month. The 38-year-old Damascus resident spent his days teaching classes at a vocational high school in Damascus and at the end of the day came home to his wife and two children.

But over the course of one day in late November, everything changed: Muhammad lost his teaching job for avoiding service in the Syrian army reserves. Today, he is hiding at home: If he goes outside, he risks arrest and conscription at one of the many checkpoints spread throughout Damascus.

Muhammad completed the mandatory service required of every military-aged male in Syria in 2008, then found a job. But when the Syrian war broke out, other men in his age group began to be called up for open-ended reserve duty. So in 2015, he started to pay bribes to an employee at the Damascus Recruitment Division to keep his name off the lists of those wanted for service.

Then, on November 21 of this year, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis issued a directive to all public institutions instructing them to “terminate the employment of those avoiding mandatory military service or reserve duty.” The guidance—a reiteration of a late 2016 statement calling for the same action that was reportedly not widely enforced—applied specifically to public sector employees.

In late November, Muhammad went to work and received a summons to go to the Damascus Education Directorate, the managing body for public schoolteachers in the province. There, he says he was fired “for dodging reserve duty, because I had ‘abandoned my homeland in its hour of need.’” Muhammad asked not to be identified by his real name in this story.

Before last month, Muhammad’s name had not been called for reserve service, he believes, because of the bribes he paid to the Recruitment Division employee.

But in the days after the Prime Minister’s directive, Muhammad believes it became too dangerous for the employee he was bribing at the Recruitment Division to continue to remove his name from the lists of those wanted for reserve duty.

Syrian soldiers east of Damascus in November, 2016. Photo by Stringer/AFP.

Four other teachers lost their jobs the same day Muhammad did, he says. Now, he is hiding at home to avoid being discovered and arrested at a checkpoint, and considering his next steps.

November’s directive is the latest in a series of efforts by the Syrian government to draw any and all military-aged young men into the armed forces. The decree—which applies to public sector employees across Syria—was first issued in October 2016, but reportedly not widely enforced at that time. As a result, Khamis re-issued the order last month.   

The full impact of the push to fire public sector workers wanted for military service is not yet clear. Syria Direct spoke to three state employees who said they were fired as a result.

“I already completed my military service” in 2008, says Muhammad. “I’m a teacher—I don’t have any expertise in war or killing. I’d be much more of a burden than an asset to my homeland in combat.”

All Syrian males between the ages of 18 and 42 must serve at least 18 months of army service, which Article 46 of the country’s constitution refers to as a “sacred duty.” Those who are studying at college or are the only son in a family are exempt. All those who complete their mandatory service may be called up for reserve duty until they are too old.

During the civil war, amid reports of grueling conflict on the frontlines and soldiers kept in the service long after their mandated time was up, thousands of young Syrian men fled the country or looked for other ways to avoid serving.

At the same time, reserve duty was required of all military-aged men who had already completed their mandatory service.

Three Damascus residents and former public sector employees who Syria Direct spoke with in recent days—Anas Muhammad, Tariq al-Malek and Ahmad a-Sayyed—all tried to avoid military service in their own ways while keeping their jobs. Muhammad and al-Malek bribed an employee and an officer at the Damascus Recruitment Division. A-Sayyed intentionally delayed finishing his university studies, then applied for a master’s degree while working as an engineer after he graduated.

All three say they were fired by their employers following November’s directive. Now, they face a choice: stay and serve in the Syrian armed forces, or try to make an expensive and dangerous journey out of Syria.

Tariq al-Malek, 35, was fired from his job as a grain silo engineer working for the Syrian government on November 22, the day after the Prime Minister’s directive was issued. When he heard the news, he reached out to an officer at the Recruitment Division who he had been bribing to stay out of the reserves, but “he told me he couldn’t do anything this time around, and I had to turn myself in to the army,” recalls al-Malek.

Since he was fired, al-Malek now stays at home, indoors. He and his family have kept his firing a secret from neighbors, afraid that one of them could inform the authorities.

“Every knock on the door, I imagine that it’s the security forces,” he tells Syria Direct. “Imagine living like this, after a decision turns your normal life upside down.”

Conscription has been in place in Syria since 1946. But after the war began, the enforcement of mandatory military service became a matter of vital national importance for the government to quell opposition forces and fend off the Islamic State.

Today, all across Syria, “flying checkpoints” spring up to ensnare passing draft-dodgers, while mass-arrest campaigns snag those in the wrong place at the wrong time and door-to-door checks sniff out those avoiding military service.

A checkpoint in Damascus in December 2017. Photo courtesy of Damascus NDF.

Even so, the description of Syria’s mandatory military service on the country’s Ministry of Defense website lauds it as a way to “meet new friends” and “become a real man and prove yourself.”

But for some college-aged Syrians, repeatedly failing college exams or not completing a course or two to avoid graduation is preferable to the risk of fighting and dying in a seemingly endless conflict. Ahmad a-Sayyed is one of them.

“For young guys who stayed in Syria, there is no escaping the military,” he tells Syria Direct.

Until the November 21 decision, a-Sayyed worked as a civil engineer with the Damascus Provincial Directorate. He graduated college this past spring after delaying for a year by not completing one course. He had hoped to apply to a master’s program before his educational deferment ran out in one month.

“I wasn’t shocked to be fired,” he says. “But the problem is that now I’m immediately wanted for service. My family wants me to leave the country.”

Avoiding military service in Syria costs money. Men seeking to escape military service bribe employees or officers to overlook them or grant them repeated leave, or pay smugglers to bring them out of the country.

Today, a-Sayyed is currently looking for a smuggler to bring him from Damascus to Turkey, a risky journey. Tariq is waiting for a brother in Jordan to send him the money he needs to do the same.

But schoolteacher Muhammad, who bribed an employee at the Recruitment Division for years, says his family was already living paycheck to paycheck. With him out of work, he feels his only option is to stay in the country and join the armed services to earn some money and support his family.

Muhammad says he  intends to join the National Defense Forces (NDF), a paramilitary organization that supports the Syrian military. The NDF reportedly pays higher salaries and offers more attractive benefits to its volunteers. Those who join the NDF are generally not called away from it to serve in the regular Syrian Arab Army.

“If I volunteer for the NDF, I’ll get a paycheck,” says Muhammad. “It’s better than being seized at a checkpoint [as a draft-dodger] and put through a military court.”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.