Syria Army’s Weakness Exacerbated by Draft Dodgers

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RPS Note: The article makes two important points: 1) The Assad loyalists are cowards Assad cannot rely upon to defend his rule and, 2) Young Syrian men do not want to fight for someone else’s rule and sole benefits. It also highlights how dis-incentivized are the foreign fighters Assad is recruiting as compared to the rebel fighters avenging their mothers dying from barrel bombs, gas attacks, and Assad snipers.  

Source: The Wall Street Journal – by Raja Abdulrahim

As war drags on, young men flee country or find other ways to avoid conscription.

Soon after the military police came looking for the 25-year-old computer engineer at his family’s home, he fled Syria.

He bribed a security officer to briefly remove his name from the list of men wanted for mandatory military service and paid a taxi driver $1,000 to drive him across the border into Lebanon.

Like many young men living in government-controlled parts of Syria, he had been putting off conscription by paying $2,000 a year, hoping to avoid becoming cannon fodder for a military that has been hemorrhaging soldiers, either by death or defection, after more than four years of war.

The reluctance of young men like him to join has left the Syrian army even weaker as it fights a multifront war. Instead, it has pulled inward, focusing on protecting parts of the country that are essential to President Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power, say Middle East diplomats and a Syrian government official.

That weakness was most apparent during recent defeats in the northwest province of Idlib and the city of Palmyra; rebels and opposition groups said regime forces withdrew quickly rather than fight a prolonged battle.

Monitoring groups and diplomats estimate the Syrian regime retains control of about a quarter of the country, with the rest held by the extremist Islamic State, myriad opposition rebels and Kurdish groups.

“Every man in Syria…tries his best not to serve in the army,” the young engineer said. “He can’t imagine himself being a part of what’s happening, part of a long war that doesn’t seem to have an end.”

Finding that many men aren’t answering their conscription notices, the regime has for months been aggressively sweeping up men in neighborhood raids, at road checkpoints and at border crossings—and sending them to the front lines, according to residents and rebels, who have captured many of these draftees on the battlefield.

“I don’t want to be a part of a conflict which is for a single man’s benefit,” said a 29-year-old who has a good job in Damascus but is making plans to flee the country anyway. “This is a conflict that we, the normal people, have nothing to do with.”

Since the start of the antigovernment uprising in 2011, the military hasn’t allowed any soldiers to be discharged, according to a brigadier general in Homs province.

More recently there has been a crackdown on granting delays in military service. One officer was executed by the regime because of the large number of postponements he allowed in exchange for bribes, the brigadier general said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the army has declined to 200,000 soldiers and officers, half the size it was before the uprising. An assessment released last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies put Syria’s armed forces at 178,000, down from 325,000.

They are aided by about 80,000 militia fighters.

“Of course they are overstretched and weakened….I think they are reassessing their own strategy,” a diplomat based in Syria said. “It’s a matter of surviving. I don’t think the Syrian regime has the ability to think long term.”

The country’s forces, he said, are focused only on protecting key areas like Damascus, Homs and the coastal provinces, a stronghold of the Alawite, the minority branch of Shiite Islam to which President Assad belongs.

“They didn’t look so optimistic and so assured that they will have victory against the opposition,” said another diplomat who visited Syria last month. “The loss of Palmyra changed very much the image among the supporters.”

Ali Haidar, Syria’s reconciliation minister, conceded that the army wasn’t capable of defending every part of the country, such as the remote city of Palmyra. The regime faced sharp criticism in the wake of its rapid takeover last month by Islamic State militants. But Mr. Haidar said defending the desert outpost would have taken a large toll on Syrian forces.

“The wide deployment of the Syrian military is being studied anew,” he said. The aim is “to draw primary defensive lines to achieve victories that are more strategic than protecting remote areas and areas that are empty of residents and of economic life.”

The dwindling ranks are apparent even in the capital. Security checkpoints, which used to be manned by young conscripts and were an important show of the government’s control, are now staffed by middle-aged men and sometimes even women. The younger men are all needed at the front lines.

The National Defense Forces and popular committees—militias turned into official security branches—tempt recruits with $100 monthly salaries and special services at businesses and bakeries, where people line up for hours just to buy bread.

But when weighed against the multiple defeats the armed forces have suffered and videos of soldiers killed at the hands of rebels or Islamic State, the incentives have proved less than convincing to many.

As a result, there appears to be a growing dependence on foreign fighters, who have played an important role ever since the militant Shiite group Hezbollah helped retake in 2013 the strategic town of Qusayr along the Lebanese border.

Since then the Syrian government’s foreign force has included advisers from Russia and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite fighters and most recently, Arab nationalist fighters from Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon.

Recently, the Syrian foreign minister asked Iran to send 100,000 fighters, according to the diplomat who regularly visits Syria. The request was denied because Iran feared turning the conflict into an open sectarian war, he said.

For the Syrian regime, a big test is the continuing battle for Qalamoun, a mountainous region bordering Lebanon and close to the capital.

In recent weeks, Hezbollah has taken to giving media tours of newly seized areas in the Qalamoun region, eager to promote even incremental successes against a backdrop of bigger defeats elsewhere in the country. The rebels though, controlled only a small portion of Qalamoun to begin with.

Even though Hezbollah once spoke of a limited presence in Syria along the Lebanese border and around Damascus, it has recently accepted an expanded role.

“Our presence will expand everywhere our responsibility requires,” Hezbollah leaderHassan Nasrallah said in a speech last month, noting that “the situation has gone beyond” protecting shrines in Damascus for two years already.

“And we are able to help the army and its people and the resistance in Syria for victory and responding to the attack,” he said.

Syria Army’s Weakness Exacerbated by Draft Dodgers



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