DAMASCUS (Reuters) – When a government-linked Islamic body in Syria said this week it was a “sacred duty” to join the army and fight the revolt, Damascus was ablaze with rumours of a mass military draft.
Men of military age panicked, worrying they would be given a gun and told to fight never-ending street battles with rebel fighters before being returned to their families in a wooden box, like thousands of soldiers over the past two years.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are stretched thin across the country as the opposition takes further ground, overrunning military bases and executing prisoners. Fleeing reservists say morale is low among troops, who are virtually imprisoned in their barracks by officers who fear they’ll defect or flee.
Mohammed, a 30-year-old who supports Assad, said he would rather flee the country than fight the rebels.
“So what exactly would I be doing if I got drafted? Killing rebels? They’ll kill me back,” he said, asking to withhold his second name for fear of retribution.
“I’d be dead no matter what, like a lamb to the slaughter,” said Mohammed, who completed his two-year mandatory military service years ago. “Yeah, sure I support the regime, but this isn’t my fight.”
The official news agency SANA denied the authorities were planning to organise a draft.
“While military service is a sacred national duty, there’s absolutely no truth in news by some media outlets about issuing a general call for conscription,” it said. The army is “well prepared to repel and confront terrorists,” it added, using the government’s term for the armed opposition.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London said on Thursday the Syrian army’s strength has roughly halved to around 110,000 men due to defections, desertions and battlefield losses.
“Essentially, the regime could only be certain of the loyalty of the mainly Alawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the elite 3rd and 4th Divisions – perhaps 50,000 troops in total,” the think tank said in its annual report on the world’s militaries.