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In Syria’s Deir ez-Zor, SDF conscription ‘severs livelihoods’

The Syrian Democratic Forces' recent campaign to conscript youth for military service is compounding economic hardship in Deir ez-Zor province, one of the poorest areas of Syria. In villages where the campaign is most active, young men are staying home for fear of arrest, forgoing daily wages and delaying grocery purchases to avoid passing by checkpoints.
Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attend the funeral of an Arab fighter in SDF who was killed the previous week in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, in northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli on April 10, 2019. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Young men in Deir ez-Zor province, one of the poorest and most volatile areas of Syria, are contending with a fresh challenge to their livelihoods heaped on top of widespread unemployment, inflation and violence: conscription into military units affiliated with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In WhatsApp interviews with Al-Monitor over the past three weeks, eight Deir ez-Zor residents, from day laborers to white-collar professionals, described how the prospect of arrest for service had threatened, reduced or cut off their incomes. They say conscription is an undue burden on youth who in many cases are barely keeping their families afloat. The paltry salary offered to conscripts, a fraction of what is given to volunteer soldiers, has fueled resentment.

“We can’t find work or provide for our families, and now they’re demanding we enlist. If I wanted to be conscripted, I would’ve stayed with the Assad regime,” a defected Syrian government soldier in Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside told Al-Monitor on Feb. 3.

Deir ez-Zor is home to large oil reserves, but ordinary residents do not benefit from the natural riches that surround them. Protests against poor municipal services and poverty conditions are frequent. Year after year, fuel shortages ensure that people shiver through the desert winters, as smugglers ship oil out of the province.

“Conscription severs livelihoods and keeps people awake at night,” said Amer, the pseudonym of a middle-aged citizen journalist from the village of Izba. Like the other residents interviewed for this article, he did not want his real name printed so that he could express himself freely on a sensitive topic. “The majority of youth wanted for military service are 18 to 30 years old,” he said. “Most of these guys are married.”

The Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria passed their first Conscription Law in mid-2014. At the time, the Kurdish People and Women’s Protection Units, which later formed the core of the SDF, were battling the Islamic State (IS) at the peak of the extremist organization’s power. As the SDF cleared IS out of the northeast with American support over the next five years, conscription followed into its new Arab-majority territories, including parts of Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces. After a three-month pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, checkpoints and patrols resumed detaining young men for service last summer. 

The office responsible for self defense duty, as compulsory service is called, is part of the SDF-affiliated Autonomous Administration rather than the SDF itself. But several residents who spoke to Al-Monitor ignored this distinction. They are not alone in doing so: Official SDF media promotes self-defense material, and graduating classes of conscripts march under the SDF flag in the presence of SDF leaders; troops from both groups sometimes fight on the same fronts.

Depending on the day, Ahmed passes one to three checkpoints on his commute inside Deir ez-Zor province from Kasrah to Zughayir, where he works for a local humanitarian organization. When the checkpoints are manned by military police, who might detain him for service, he turns around and forfeits his daily wage, he told Al-Monitor Feb. 10.

“Sometimes I miss work two days of the week; sometimes more, sometimes less. If I’m able to avoid the checkpoints, enter a nearby village and bypass them, I can get to work. Occasionally I can work the entire week,” said Ahmed. “But when the checkpoints are very frequent, I’ll be out of work for a whole week.”

How has he dealt with his lost wages?

“We don’t eat as much,” Ahmed said, referring to his wife and child. “We prioritize cheap food, and I borrowed money from friends. Hopefully, I can pay them back. … I can’t enlist as a conscript. I’ve got a family that I need to support, and the conscript’s salary is next to nothing.” The salary is 50,000 Syrian pounds a month, or roughly $17 as on the black market exchange rate last month.

Until this past January, Tareq ran deliveries and carried passengers on his motorbike; his brother made sweets in the village market. “Our third brother was killed in an airstrike, and his children live with us under one roof. Our parents are deceased,” Tareq told Al-Monitor Feb. 3 from the northern Deir al-Zour countryside.

“Last month my brother was opening the shop when a patrol made the rounds in the market and took him away for conscription. He had put the sweets in the oven and left everything in its place. The sweets spoiled. I threw away what couldn’t be saved and closed the shop down because I don’t know how to make sweets like my brother.”

“We’re taking care of orphans, and together we were barely covering a portion of our household’s expenses before the arrest,” Tareq said. Facing the loss of his brother’s income, Tareq was unable to compensate with motorcycle deliveries, as local authorities recently banned the vehicles due to their use in assassinations. “Now I’m making deliveries on foot, hauling goods in the market,” he said.

On Jan. 26, the Autonomous Administration gave youths a 30-day grace period to report to a conscription center and determine their eligibility. As of this article’s writing, the pace of arrests appears to have slowed in Deir ez-Zor.

“There’s been no decision to stop the conscription campaign,” said a worker at a nongovernmental organization (NGO) who lives on the east bank of the Euphrates River. “Starting 14 days ago, [authorities] haven’t been taking people and the conscription patrols have stopped. I don’t know why, and we’re afraid of what comes after the calm,” he told Al-Monitor Feb. 13.

The 2019 Conscription Law contains items intended to cushion its economic impact, including exemptions for some breadwinners. In practice, the young men who spoke to Al-Monitor said a lack of financial resources, uncertainty about who qualifies for an exemption and fear of arrest prevent them from applying.

“Getting an exemption is definitely not a guaranteed thing,” said Mahmoud, an NGO employee from the eastern countryside. “It’s difficult and costs a lot of money. People here are poor. And we’re afraid that if we go to apply, they’ll grab us,” he added.

“I heard that internally displaced persons from areas outside SDF control can get an ‘arrivee card’ that exempts them from service,” said Ahmed, the checkpoint-dodging humanitarian worker who lives in Kasrah. “I don’t know if it will work for me or not. The problem is I can’t afford the risk. I’m afraid they’ll take me away and then it’s game over.”

It is unclear why northeast Syria’s authorities insist on mandatory service. Is it intended to fill manpower gaps, build a shared political identity or meet other goals? Zaydan al-Asi, co-chair of the Autonomous Administration’s Defense Bureau, did not respond to Al-Monitor’s requests for comments via WhatsApp.

The original 2014 law portrayed conscription as a duty “to protect the honor, freedom and existence of the area’s peoples.” It was passed when Kurdish forces were mounting a valiant, last-ditch defense against IS in the town of Kobani. Now the SDF controls most of northeast Syria and has shown resilience in the face of repeated Turkish assaults, a simmering IS insurgency and destabilizing actions by the Syrian regime.

Faced with a threat to their economic survival, several young men who spoke to Al-Monitor offered a cynical explanation as to why conscription persists: The authorities are trying to save money. “Most people say the arrest campaign [to net conscripts] is about the salary,” said Waleed, a day laborer in Deir ez-Zor’s western countryside. “There’s a difference between 300,000 Syrian pounds and 50,000 Syrian pounds” — the monthly salaries offered to volunteers and conscripts, respectively, he told Al-Monitor Feb. 3.

Omar, a schoolteacher from the eastern countryside, echoed this sentiment. “If you opened up enlistment today to everyone, three-quarters of people who are out of work would join,” he told Al-Monitor Feb. 4. “Of course they would; they want to live however they can.”

Omar is now eligible for conscription following a controversial December 2020 decision requiring educators to serve. “It’s totally unreasonable to make everyone carry weapons; for example, the doctor, the mechanic, the electrician, the teacher,” he told Al-Monitor.

Last year a former spokesman for the US-led International Coalition to fight IS tweeted a video of what appears to be American service members at “a celebration for a graduating class of self-defense recruits in Deir ez-Zor.” Current spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto declined to comment on the International Coalition’s stance on compulsory service, noting to Al-Monitor, “We work by, with and through our partner forces — the Iraqi Security Forces, the peshmerga forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces — to ensure the enduring defeat of [IS].”

Having lived through nearly a decade of war, some young men want nothing more than to sit on the sidelines. “During the revolution, we experienced a ton of brigades,” said Waleed. “The Free Syrian Army (FSA) punished those with the regime. IS punished those with the FSA. The SDF punished those with IS. And those who are with the SDF today could be punished tomorrow by the regime or the FSA.”

“I’m not an opponent of the local administration; on the contrary, they’re good,” he added. “The issue is that people are struggling to get by. Conscription is crushing us."

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