BARDARASH, IRAQ — When Giwan fled his city of Amuda in northeastern Syria two months ago, the ongoing Turkish military offensive wasn’t the only reason he packed his bags.
“Not everyone fled due to the war. Many of us fled in fear of the regime,” explained the 27-year-old refugee who asked that his real name not be used
He and roughly 10,000 other Syrians now live in tents at Bardarash camp near the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. Giwan, like most of his neighbors in the camp, paid a smuggler to cross the border into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
“We ended up coming here after the Syrian regime entered the city,” he said. “We had no option but to flee the area because we knew they would arrest us.”
In mid-October, Syrian government troops deployed along the Turkish border, the result of a Russia-brokered deal reached with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces designed to fend off Turkish troops and their allied forces who had just launched an offensive in northern Syria.
The arrangement — struck after withdrawing U.S. troops cleared the way for Ankara’s operation — saw the Syrian Arab Army return to cities and towns it hadn’t occupied in years, dashing hopes of a continued Kurdish semi-state in the northeast.
“Everyone has fled. We heard that they would take those reached conscription age,” Alan, a 17-year-old refugee from the town of Derik, said of the Syrian army.
Alan, who also asked to use a pseudonym, drove his motorcycle to the Iraqi border with friends his age. He said he is desperate to avoid fighting in an army where conscripts are routinely sent to the frontlines.
“They take everyone from age 10 to 70. It’s horrible because you might not return after a few years,” Alan said.
Under Syria’s conscription law, all men between the ages of 18 and 42 must complete 18 to 21 months of military service. Although some deferrals are granted to university students and there are exemptions for certain medical conditions and families’ only sons, there is no exception for conscientious objectors.
Men under age 42 who have already completed their required service are automatically considered reservists and may be called up for additional duties. Many have served non-stop since the start of the war, and there are some reports of men over 42 being called up to active army service.
“Any young man within the recruitable age range is basically at risk of being forcibly recruited. I don’t think anyone is safe,” said Basma Alloush, policy and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council USA.
“Forced conscription is definitely one of the main reasons why people have fled and are not looking to return to Syria in the near future,” Alloush said.
Defections and draft dodging, combined with high casualties after eight years of war, has taken a toll on the SAA. By some estimates, it’s dwindled to just 20-25% of its pre-war strength of roughly 330,000 troops in 2011.
To cope with the battlefield losses in the early years of the war, the army mobilized reservists and relied heavily on foreign sectarian fighters. To crack down on draft evasion, police and state security forces conducted house raids and erected checkpoints to conscript military-aged men.
Others coercive methods involved threatening families in regime-controlled areas whose sons didn’t report for duty. The government of Bashar al-Assad also tried to shame men into enlisting, most notably through a March 2018 video depicting female army volunteers training for battle.
With the army stretched thin, Damascus began offering amnesty for draft dodgers and deserters who turned themselves in within a set period of time. Those who surrendered were still expected to complete their required service but were told they wouldn’t face punishment for fleeing or failing to enlist previously.
“There is not a lot of trust in the Syrian regime to honor its promises of amnesty,” said Mai El-Sadany, a human rights lawyer and the legal and judicial director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP).
El-Sadany points to reports of harassment, arbitrary detention and assassinations of young men perceived as disloyal in regime-held areas. A survey conducted earlier this year of Syrians who returned to government-run parts of country found 72% of those arrested were supposed to be covered by the regime’s pardons or reconciliation agreements.
“Reconciliation has not been honored to any degree in Syria, and I don’t see why the same pattern would not occur should a reconciliation take place in the northeast,” said El-Sadany.
In October, the Syrian Ministry of Defense said it was “ready to receive” men in the northeast who had not yet completed their military service. But the SDF, which has its own service requirements, rejected calls for its fighters to join the SAA’s ranks.
Assad meanwhile has vowed to reassert control over the entire country — Kurdish areas included. The Syrian president recently promised to “respect new realities on the ground” in the northeast, but refugees are skeptical of such pledges. As recently as September, his foreign ministry labeled the SDF “separatist terrorist militias” and vowed to “liberate” Kurdish territories.
“He was never fair toward the Kurds,” said Baran, a 20-year-old living in Bardarash camp. As Baran (also not his real name) sees it, there’s no reason to think the long-oppressed Kurdish people will be treated any better in a post-war Syria.
“The regime will get back on its feet once again,” he said. “We just wish to have some value.”