Syria. Military service and forced recruitment. February, 2018

According the report of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in Syria, draft evasion is a criminal offence.  Independent observers note that draft evasion is likely considered by the government as a political, anti-government act, which may lead to punishment of the person who attempted to evade the draft beyond the relevant sanctions for the criminal offence of draft evasion, including harsher treatment during arrest, interrogation, detention and, once deployed, during military service. In practice, rather than facing criminal sanctions (imprisonment) under the Military Penal Code, draft evaders are reportedly deployed to a frontline position within days or weeks of their arrest, often with only minimal training.

As a result of high rates of draft evasion, desertions, and casualties, the army and security agencies have reportedly intensified their efforts to conscript Syrian men and to mobilize reservists. In addition, efforts have reportedly been stepped up to identify and arrest draft evaders, including at mobile and fixed checkpoints, during raids, house searches and searches on public transportation.  In areas retaken by government forces from anti-government armed groups, men of mandatory military service or reserve duty age have reportedly been arrested in large numbers for the purpose of conscripting them into the army.

Draft evaders in detention face a risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, a practice reported to be endemic in Syria.

In addition to the act of draft evasion itself being perceived as a political act, other elements of a draft evader’s profile may further contribute to that person being perceived as not sufficiently loyal to the government and/or supporting the (political or armed) opposition, which would put the draft evader at further risk of ill-treatment over and beyond punishment under the applicable legal framework for draft evasion.

An increasing level of arbitrariness is reportedly applied to rules and regulations regarding military service, particularly in relation to deferral and exemption procedures. Increasingly, the government has reportedly also called up previously “protected populations” such as university students, civil servants and prisoners for compulsory military service. Many of those serving their compulsory military service have reportedly seen their terms extended beyond the 18 months prescribed by law. According to reports, men who are discharged following the end of their mandatory service are often automatically enlisted into the army reserves. Many men of conscription or reservist age are reported to avoid movements, have gone into hiding, relocate to areas held by anti-government armed groups (including under local reconciliation agreements), or have fled the country for fear of harassment at checkpoints and forced conscription. Men returning from abroad are reported to be consistently checked for their military service records.

Desertions from the armed forces have reportedly been most prevalent in the early years of the conflict, but have since become a rare occurrence. Desertion is punishable under the 1950 Military Penal Code, as amended, and entails, depending on the circumstances, imprisonment or the death penalty. These legal provisions notwithstanding, according to reports, individuals who refused orders to shoot, deserted or were suspected of planning their desertion have commonly not been formally charged with an offence. Rather, they have reportedly either been subjected to immediate execution at the time of desertion or when caught, or have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture and extra-judicial execution; or have been ordered to return to their military unit following an investigation.

Since 2011, the Syrian president has issued a series of amnesty decrees for members of anti-government armed groups, draft evaders and deserters, which exempted them from punishment, if they turned themselves in within a specified period of time.[1]

The situation in the government-controlled areas

Military conscription of males continues unabated as it has done throughout the conflict. There has been no general mobilization within the last year (March 2016 – March 2017), but generally, control of military status has been intensified at checkpoints. Several sources said that during 2016, there were waves of intensified efforts to recruit conscripts and reservists, including raids in public areas. Two sources stated that one of the reasons behind raids of this sort was that only few men responded to call ups for conscription and reported for duty.

According to several sources, areas recently taken over by the government forces provide new pools of recruitment for the Syrian authorities. In these areas, there are many men who have never reported for service and are now subject to military conscription.

Several sources noted that the government actively encourages citizens to enroll for service in the armed forces.

Groups which previously were able to avoid conscription through deferrals are increasingly under pressure for being conscripted and their possibilities to obtain deferrals or exemptions have been limited. According to a diplomatic source (A), leniencies have been cut back, e.g. university students whose military service was postponed during their studies, are now called up immediately after their final exam rather than at the end of the academic year as was the case prior to the conflict

UNHCR also noted a rise in targeting of prisoners, public servants and to some extent also certain religious minorities, which were previously considered as ‘protected’ with regards to military service.

One source said that exemptions for e.g. medical reasons are no longer strictly adhered to and that individuals who have previously been exempted for medical or mental conditions have in some instances undergone renewed medical, physical and mental assessments. The purpose of such assessments has been to identify individuals with minor medical issues who, despite prior exemptions, can be considered fit for either logistical or combat roles.

Two sources mentioned that the government has begun to recruit everyone, also only male children of families who previously, by law, have been exempted from service.

Profile of reservists called up for service

Several sources said that which reservists are particularly at risk of being drafted depends on the qualifications needed by the army.

Three sources have on the other hand said that the government no longer exclusively focuses on recruiting reservists with certain qualifications, with one of the sources underlining that this is due to the lack of unity in the army with regard to recruitment strategies. An international organization has similarly stated that it seems quite random how reservists are called up and that it differs from area to area.

One source said that reservists with military qualifications are in high demand. However, the source underlined that even those not being specifically targeted presently could risk being sought after when their specific qualifications were needed and added that the army was recently in a severe need of doctors.

Several sources said that reservists over the age of 42 are recruited and the age scope of reservists called up thus has been widened.

 Recruitment of men above the age of 42

Regarding recruitment of those over the age of 42 to the Syrian army, several sources said that the age limit has been pushed to include men over the age of 42. Two sources noted that the military service age has been extended from 42 up to 50.

A major international non-governmental organization operating in Syria said that generally, the age limit of recruits to the army is 42. However, agreements that have been made in areas recently taken over by the government show that the age scope of people recruited for the army has been widened to include men up until at least the age of 45. One source referred to reports of men up until the age of 52 being drafted in areas recently retaken by the government forces, for example in Aleppo where many men were immediately recruited to serve in the military.

The situation in opposition-controlled areas

According to a diplomatic source (A), there are a wide array of different opposition groups in areas outside of government control and a multitude of factors affect the circumstances under which groups exert control in a given area.

Some sources noted that recruitment patterns vary from area to area depending on local dynamics and groups in question. Professor Bassel Al-Hassan said that generally all warring parties increasingly recruit their fighters on the basis of ethnic and religious motives due to the escalating sectarianism.

Most sources said that recruitment of fighters to armed opposition groups generally takes place on a voluntary basis. Economic necessity is a significant incentive pushing men to join armed groups in the face of few other options for earning a living.

Most sources considered that social pressure to join armed groups exists in opposition-controlled areas, and some sources noted that whether or not social pressure is prevalent depends on the area and local circumstances.

An international organization highlighted that jihadist groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra use force in recruiting and refusing to join jihadist groups would be considered equal to siding with the regime. Contrarily, a major international non-governmental organization said that a group such as Al-Nusra only trusts and recruits persons whom it knows and whose families are known to them.  A third source stated that Jabhat Al-Nusra relies heavily in their recruitment on a religious, sectarian and ideological propaganda. [2]

Forced Recruitment by Kurds Reported again in Northeastern Syria

TEHRAN (FNA) – The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recruited more civilians in different regions in Raqqa province and forced them to join the SDF, local sources said Saturday, adding that the Kurdish militias are intensifying pressure on civilians in the region.

The sources said that the SDF has arrested a number of young people in the town of Solouk in Northern Raqqa to force them to join the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The sources in Northern Raqqa reported on Thursday that the Kurdish forces detained over 1,500 young people from the towns and villages of the region with the aim of recruiting them for fight against the Turkish army and its affiliated militants.

They also underlined increased recruitment activities by the Kurds in the region, adding that a large number of teachers in Solouk and Tal Abyadh regions in Raqqa province have been transferred to Khorous base in South of the town of Ain al-Arab (Kobani) in Eastern Aleppo.[3][4]

ACCORD – Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation in Query response on Syria: Forced recruitment of underage persons by the Islamic State (IS) group, Published on18 August 2017 mentions that:

„A total of 362 cases of recruitment and use of children were verified and attributed to ISIL (274), the Free Syrian Army and affiliated groups (62), Liwa’ al-Tawhid (11), popular committees (5), Kurdish People’s Protection Units (4), Ahrar al-Sham (3), the Nusrah Front (2) and the Army of Islam (1). Of the verified cases, 56 per cent involved children under 15 years of age, a significant increase compared with 2014. The payment of salaries and ideology continued to be major influencing factors. The massive recruitment and use of children by ISIL continued.“ [5]

According the Monthly Human Rights Digest – June 2017 of UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reports of forced recruitment campaigns by the SDF and    YPG    in    both    Ar-Raqqa    and    Al -Hassakeh Governorates are   also   being   received. [6]

[1] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Protection Considerations with regard to people fleeing the Syrian Arab Republic, Update V, 3 November 2017, available at:

 [accessed 23 February 2018]

[2] Danish Immigration Service: Recruitment Practices in Government-controlled Areas and in Areas under Opposition Control, Involvement of Public Servants and Civilians in the Armed Conflict and Issues Related to Exiting Syria; Copenhagen, August 2017

[accessed 23 February 2018]

[3]Fars News Agency: Forced Recruitment by Kurds Reported again in Northeastern Syria;  published: Feb 10, 2018 available at: http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13961121001523 [accessed 23 February, 2018]

[4] Fars News Agency: SDF Continues Forced Recruitment in Raqqa; published: Feb 08, 2018; available at: http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13961119000761 [accessed 23 February, 2018]

[5] ACCORD – Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation: Forced recruitment of underage persons by the Islamic State (IS) group; Published:18 August 2017;  available at:

[6] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Syria: Monthly Human Rights Digest – June 2017, 30 June 2017, available at:

  [accessed 23 February 2018]