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Young Syrians flee regime areas for Turkey

Dozens of young men from areas controlled by the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) cross daily smuggling routes to the areas under the Syrian opposition to reach Turkey and flee to Europe to escape conscription in the Syrian army.
A displaced Syrian boy stands next to Turkish military vehicles near the town of Batabu on the highway linking Idlib to the Syrian Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, on March 2, 2020.

The devastating economic conditions and soaring unemployment rates in the Syrian government-controlled areas are pushing many young men toward Turkey via areas held by the opposition in the northern countryside of Aleppo and those under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib.

These young men face several dangers on the journey between cities controlled by the government. Most of them are wanted for failing to join the compulsory military service in the Syrian government army. To avoid conscription or arrest, they head to the opposition-controlled areas, specifically those held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, allied with Turkey. They cross smuggling routes between the government areas and the FSA areas, or between the areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the FSA areas.

Mohannad Darwish, a journalist who currently resides in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “Several reasons drive these young men to embark on this dangerous journey. The first is the miserable economic situation in the Syrian regime area. The deployment of militias [affiliated with the regime], the spread of corruption and the squandering of state resources have caused an unbearable economic situation. The Syrian pound has plummeted and income per capita is almost nil. This pushed many, even those close to the regime, to flee in search of better living conditions.”

Darwish added, “The second reason is the youth’s fear of being drafted. The regime’s army has become a true graveyard for Syrian youth. The army forces carry out quasi-arrest operations and forcible recruitment for a period that may last up to 10 years. Many young Syrians end up killed in action or leave after 10 years without having secured any other job. This is not to mention the poor psychological state they suffer as a result of their experience. All these are sufficient reasons for any young man to think of evading military service, even Alawite young men known for their loyalty to the regime. Numerous [young Alawite men] died as a result of forced and oppressive recruitment by the regime authorities.”

The third reason, he said, is political. “The regime areas do not offer any form of intellectual or political freedom. Many young men fear getting arrested over their political position or opinion. Sometimes, members of the militia affiliated with the regime would fabricate charges to arrest civilians.”

Darwish continued, “The perils of this journey from the regime-held areas to the opposition-controlled areas are enormous. Draft evaders could end up killed or arrested. The first risk they have to dodge is safely crossing the regime's areas. The idea of leaving these areas, especially to the Syrian opposition areas, is seen by the regime's security forces as a crime. While moving from one province to the other within the regime’s areas, evaders could be insulted, robbed of whatever belonging they may hold or even get blackmailed by the regime’s security members at checkpoints. The most dangerous stage is crossing confrontation lines with the opposition. Landmines have killed hundreds. Add to this, smugglers from both sides could rob these evaders. The worst, however, is crossing the Syrian-Turkish borders.”

Khaled Ismail, 20, who hails from Aleppo and is currently residing in the border areas between the northern countryside of Idlib and the Turkish border, told Al-Monitor, “I worked in a bakery in Aleppo city to help my father provide for our family. But I was living in constant fear of getting called up for military service. I have managed to avoid conscription for nearly two years. The regime forces sent out service notifications to my family, but I do not want to serve in the reserves for several reasons. Mandatory conscription could last for several years, and I would be facing many life-threatening risks on the battlefronts.”

Khaled added, “I thought about fleeing, and my father encouraged me to do so and to join my siblings who have been living in Germany since 2016. He contacted smugglers from inside the city of Aleppo, and they picked me up with a group of young men. We took several secondary roads to bypass the regime’s checkpoints until we reached areas in the northeast of Aleppo at the Abu al-Zendin crossing between the regime and opposition areas. There, we walked for more than three hours, crossing landmine fields. We finally reached the opposition areas in the countryside of the city of al-Bab, in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo. The trip cost me $600. I am now trying to cross into Turkey and from there to Germany. So far I have had two failed attempts.”

Mohammad al-Moussa, 24, from the southern countryside of Aleppo, is currently residing in Turkey. He fled Syria to Lebanon in 2013. He lost his job there working in a restaurant amid the crippling economic crisis hitting Lebanon.

He told Al-Monitor, “My family has been living in Turkey for some years now. When they asked me to join them, I contacted a smuggler who operates between Syria and Lebanon, and I agreed with him on an amount of $1,500 to be moved to the city of Azaz in the northern countryside of Aleppo. I am wanted by the regime forces for evading compulsory service. This is why I had to enter Syria through clandestine routes for fear of being drafted.”

Moussa added, “The smugglers took me in a bus full of evaders like me through the so-called military road. Smugglers make deals with some members at the regime checkpoints to cross safely. They bribe them to keep silent and let the draft evaders cross without arresting them. Between $100 and $200 is paid for every evader on the bus. This is the price I paid for reaching the city of Azaz without being exposed to risks. Then, I had to pay $800 to illegally cross into Turkey to join my family in the city of Konya.”

The immigration of Syrian youth is not only limited to the areas under the control of the government or the SDF. Despite the tough measures imposed on the Syrian-Turkish borders, dozens of young Syrians from the areas held by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib try to cross into Turkey. Some settle there after finding a job, while others plan to head to Europe for a better life. The opposition-held areas suffer high unemployment and poverty rates, although Syrians in the area are safe from conscription — which the FSA or HTS do not impose — unlike the youth in the areas under control of the government or the SDF.

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