18 December 2014

The Syrian Army Has Been Reduced to 135,000 War Weary Troops

Christopher Kozak
December 16, 2014

The Assad Regime Under Stress: Conscription and Protest among Alawite and Minority Populations in Syria

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 havereduced 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 thewithdrawal of thousands of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen from Syria in June 2014redeployed 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 inequitieshave 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 regimeconducted 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 regimeattempts 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 Rightscatalogued 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 reportedlycharging 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.

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