In addition to grim economic and political conditions, mandatory military service continues to fuel an exodus of young Syrian men who might never return to the country.
Runaways and draft dodgers are now widespread, even those who support the Syrian government. And slowly but surely, desertion is draining Syria of some of its best and brightest — many of them choosing now to go to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). And for those who cannot get out, enlisting in militias or going to fight abroad may be the most lucrative opportunity left for them.
Syria has had military conscription since 1919. Initially, enlistment was a patriotic duty and an opportunity for social mobility. Later, as the army became bogged down in unpopular wars, it earned a tongue-in-cheek epithet the "Army of Sandal-Wearers" due to overall poor equipment and morale.
Interviews with 20 Syrian military-age men in the KRI confirmed that before the current civil war, they tended to complete their military service regardless of any personal reservations. The system offered a formalized mechanism of exemptions — for being an only son or certain medical issues, for example. University students received automatic postponements that could be extended, and Syrians living outside the country could pay a fee in lieu of service. The right to conscientious objection was not recognized.
Military-age men, defined by Syrian law as between ages 18 and 42, make up a fifth of the country’s population. When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, many eligible men equated enlistment with a death sentence and deserted or dodged en masse.
Interviewees explained they hid or fled to areas outside government control or out of the country altogether. The Syrian army was reduced from 300,000 before 2011 to as low as 80,000 in 2015 — the combined effect of high battlefield losses, the formation of the opposition Free Syrian Army and desertions.
Draft evasion is considered the main reason young men flee Syria today, according to an in-depth report by the Norwegian immigration authorities (closely linked to economic prospects plummeting since 2020). A visit to any restaurant or cafe in the neighboring KRI makes this mass exodus clear. Current estimates in this region range from 500,000 to a million, with dozens to hundreds of Syrian men arriving each week from government-controlled areas by plane.
In Sulaimaniyah, Al-Monitor met Azad (all interviewees asked that their full names not be used for their safety) while he was working at a restaurant. Azad recounted how he ended up here, far from his native city of Afrin in northern Syria.
He entered the ill-fated recruitment class Dowra 102 in 2010 — the last group to enter the army before the outbreak of war — and later became part of the 52nd Brigade in eastern Daraa, spending hours in simulators launching Russian-made Konkurs missiles against imaginary tanks.
It was in Daraa that anti-government demonstrations first began in March 2011. Officers warned against deserters. “Shoot anyone who runs,” Azad recalled being told.
In the first two years of the conflict alone, desertion estimates varied between 20,000 and 100,000. Azad was hurt in a motorcycle accident and granted temporary leave to recuperate. Safe and reunited with his family in Afrin, Azad went AWOL. Even though he had served four years — two more than the legal requirement — and was now suffering chronic pain in his knee and lower back, he had broken the law.
Part of Afrin was captured by Turkey and the Syrian National Army in 2018, who viewed the presence of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) on their border as an existential threat. Azad could not flee to nearby government-controlled Aleppo, where he would almost certainly be caught. He arranged to be smuggled into the KRI, where his sister lived.
In October 2018, the Syrian government granted general amnesty to Syrians accused of desertion. Azad refused to return. The only thing worse than the uncertainty of starting life over elsewhere, he said, was having to rejoin and fight in the army.
But others still see military service as necessary. Zulfiqar, from the coastal city of Jablah — known for its large Alaawite community and support for Bashar al-Assad — explained how he initially worked on a merchant ship traveling to over 13 countries.
But after the Islamic State (IS) carried out a string of bombings along Syria’s coast, killing close to 200 people in one day in 2016, Zulfiqar at sea had nightmares of black-hooded fighters attacking his family while barbequing on the beach.
He joined the officer corps — synonymous, he felt, with fighting IS and protecting his family. But Zulfiqar immediately realized the military “would not build you as a man or anything.” While other officers sought kickbacks, he came across Rambo-like Russian soldiers and well-paid, well-fed militias. He heard how IS would taunt Syrian soldiers by throwing at them packets of Marlboro cigarettes and whole chickens.
Zulfiqar continued to support the Syrian government. But when he finally got a chance, he fled and has been in Erbil ever since.
With even supporters deserting, the government has exploited military-aged men through a cash-for-exemption system. This is part of its larger, fee-based strategy to target a remaining revenue stream, similar to its policy on passports. The government increased exemption costs to $7,000 for four years abroad. Men must defer their futures while paying off the government.
Conscription into the army is not the only service Syrians are fleeing. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control northeast Syria, passed its first conscription law in 2014. Jian left there for Sulaimaniyah, visiting home only once. Although he thought he was exempt as a student in Iraq, the SDF checkpoint guard said he had to enlist. Narrowly escaping, Jian decided not to risk another visit.
Last month, the SDF arrested and forcibly enlisted over 100 men from Raqaa in an attempt to deal with its own defection problems.
In general, it seems that Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) sees these young Syrian men as economic players. Hussein Kalary, director-general for the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center, explained how Syrians are de facto citizens with free movement and the ability to work. “I visited Syria several times before 2011, and Syrians are better off in Kurdistan today than they were in Syria before the war,” Kalary said.
However, highly coveted jobs in the humanitarian or gas sectors have an unofficial quota for Syrian nationals, according to several hiring managers. Given Syria’s traditionally high levels of education, interviewees believe they are to teach Iraqi staff all that they know, then are pushed aside without much of a future.
Ghazwan said he tried to negotiate a higher salary, and his boss countered that he knew of dosens of others waiting to take his place. “Well, if you don’t like it then you can always go back to Syria and fight,” Ghazwan recalled his boss telling him.
In addition, Syrians have recently been recruited — knowingly and unknowingly — to fight in such far-off places as Libya, Azerbaijan and even Venezuela.
Khalid traveled from Erbil to his hometown, Suweida, for a short visit. He ended up stuck there for nine months due to COVID-19 lockdowns. With feelings of listlessness and entrapment, he considered signing up with a Russian militia.
“My uncle had just returned from Libya. He made 10 times what someone could make here. I was this close to making a deal with the devil,” he confided. But the border reopened and he returned to Erbil.
Russia opened in March recruitment offices for Syrians to fight in Ukraine. According to one militia registerer, the monthly salary is $2,000. It is a lifeline where 90% of the population lives in poverty and a top engineer makes approximately $120 per month. Applicants even bribe registration centers to be shortlisted.
Any man who has any sense is getting out of Syria, interviewees told Al-Monitor. For those who cannot, combat experience is one of the few marketable skills still in significant demand.