BEIRUT -- Hazem got the call from his source inside the Damascus military recruitment office in January: His name was up. He had already served his mandatory military service in President Bashar Assad’s army, where he was trained as a sniper before the Syrian Civil War began, and he had since managed to keep himself away from the fighting on both sides. But declining manpower and a lack of fighting expertise in the regime’s army meant he had just been called back for reserve service -- with the virtual certainty he’d be fighting on the front lines. Throughout four years of war, he had never dreamed of leaving Syria. But now, the 27-year-old disc jockey in Damascus found himself with less than 24 hours to make a decision: Either flee his country or face likely death defending it.
Hazem, whose name has been changed for security reasons, had to make the same choice that many men in Syria, where up to three years of military service are mandatory at 18, had to face before him. More than four years into the civil war, draft dodging, desertions and defections are rampant. Some simply do not support the regime, while others are afraid of what may happen to them if they’re caught by rebel forces. But men in both groups are choosing to leave Syria instead of fighting because they have given up on the war and see no point of defending either side -- and the result is a deficit of manpower in Assad’s army.
“Both sides are good, both of them are bad, so the result is zero,” Hazem said. “From the beginning, we had this idea that everything was going to be OK tomorrow. Now that’s gone.”
Living in Damascus, Hazem continued to have a relatively good life after the war started, he told International Business Times while wearing a pair of blue aviator sunglasses and sitting in a cafe in Beirut’s sophisticated Hamra district. He still had friends and a home in the capital, and, most important, he was financially stable enough to ensure his security. It was this that allowed him to even have the choice in the first place. His sniper training made him an important asset to Assad’s deteriorating army. He would be sent to the front lines, where mostly Sunni rebel groups dominated the terrain. His Christian faith would have made him even more of a marked man in the event of capture.
“Either I’m going to have to kill or I will be killed,” Hazem said.
Reservists are almost always sent to the front lines, and new conscripts are thrown into battle with barely any training, said Christopher Kozak, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington. This puts them at a higher risk of being captured by rebels, who are known for their brutality toward Assad’s forces. The Islamic State group has released dozens of videos showing the gruesome executions of fighters for the regime.
Hazem rarely had to worry about this during the early years of the war, because he could pay off people. In its initial stage, he gave an officer in the Damascus military-recruitment office roughly $100 a month to alert him whenever his name appeared on the list of soldiers who would be called for duty. A second person in the police department would get paid to make sure his name never made it to the pro-regime forces manning the checkpoints, meaning he could continue freely moving around Damascus despite being a draft dodger.
But the government got wise to it. By the time his name was called to duty in January, the bribery system had become so widespread that the regime had caught on and changed its procedures. During the past six months, there has been a “constant stream of reports of people fleeing conscription or draft dodgers,” Kozak said. Last October, the regime prohibited all males born between 1985 and 1991 from leaving the country.
The lack of manpower has forced the regime to employ brutal methods in rounding up young men, some of whom are barely of conscription age, and calling on reservists with specialized training from Assad’s support strongholds. Reservists were called on at an “unprecedented rate in 6 of Syria’s 13 provinces,” according to one Institute for the Study of War report.
To fill the holes in his army, Assad rolled out an incentive program for volunteers who make up the regime-armed National Defense Forces. Those who volunteered would be allowed to remain in their hometowns, were promised a monthly salary and were made exempt from conscription in the army. This meant anyone could volunteer, build his own makeshift checkpoint in his hometown and serve the regime in relative safety. Conscripts and reservists were not given the luxury of such terms: They would be sent to the far more dangerous front lines.
“Why should I go to the army, when there are people living comfortably at the checkpoints?” Hazem asked.
When he got the call, he knew he had to act fast. Instead of going through the police, the recruitment office had begun automatically giving the names of draftees to the checkpoints. Hazem estimated he had a day to leave Damascus before they would be looking for him, and about five days to get out of Syria altogether. He drove out to Tartus, a Syrian coastal city on the border with Lebanon, on the same day he got the call about being sent back to fight.
From Tartus, he was able to cross the border into Lebanon before his name reached the Syrian police. After arriving in Tripoli, he then made his way to Beirut, where he now works -- without a permit-- as a sound engineer at a local club. In a month’s time he will be leaving for Poland, where a family member is helping him obtain a three-month visa. He can’t work there either, he said, but leaving Lebanon is the only way to really begin a new life.
Those already in the Syrian army who attempted to defect did not have such an easy time. In late 2011, when the war was just starting to escalate, Mohammed Hariri, a soldier in Assad’s army, sent his wife to Jordan where she would be safe. Days later, he tried to follow her to safety, but was stopped at the first checkpoint on the road from Daraa to Jordan. Through another of Assad’s prisoners who had been freed, his family found out that Hariri had been taken to Branch 235, one of Assad’s infamous torture prisons, in Damascus when he was originally arrested. There, he allegedly confessed while under torture. He was never heard from again.
In Beirut, Hariri’s sister -- a refugee herself, who wants her name given only as Madame Hind -- recounted that even though it has been more than three years since he was taken, his family continues to search for him. In April, Hariri’s mother went back to Syria from Lebanon, something she’d done at great risk before, after a friend gave her a lead on his possible whereabouts.
“Lots of people have the same name as him, but every time she hears it on the news or from a friend, she goes back to Syria,” Madame Hind said, adding that sometimes her mother was denied re-entry into Lebanon for months.
Lebanon is notorious for its rampant discrimination against Syrian refugees, who cannot work legally or receive health care. The Lebanese government actually banned any new refugees from entering the country last October. Things are even more difficult for draft dodgers. For Hazem, leaving Syria meant he could not return as long as the regime is in power, and he has to look over his shoulder even in Lebanon. where Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that’s helping prop up the Assad regime, is increasingly powerful.
Many here are afraid to say they are against the Syrian regime, much less that they have fled its army, because of Hezbollah. Draft dodgers often do not register for aid with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees because the organization is forced to share the names with the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah has eyes and ears.
“If you run, you don’t then give your neck to the enemy on a platter,” said Hazem, who is not registered with the U.N. refugee agency.
Things aren’t much easier among the Syrian fugitives themselves, either.
Regime supporters among the refugees routinely insult people suspected of being with the opposition as Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIS, an initialism for the Islamic State group. Those who support the opposition accuse refugees who aren’t Sunni Muslims of being infiltrators for the regime, dominated by Alawites, members of a sect connected to Shiite Islam. Some refugees hoping to gain favor with either side have no qualms about acting as informants.
“They used to come here because they were wanted by the regime. They used to come here to hide,” said Abu Mohammed, a Sunni resident of Tripoli’s Sunni Bab el Tebbeneh neighborhood. “Now the Syrians that are here are all mukhabarat on each other,” he said, using the Arabic word meaning “intelligence services.”
But even the prospect of such a bleak life in Lebanon is not enough to stop young men who have had enough of war from running the risks of fleeing Syria -- or of helping others to flee.
Hazem left his 19-year-old brother in Damascus, where he is attending university and can delay his military service by keeping up his studies. But he will automatically be conscripted upon obtaining his diploma, and Hazem is now focused on finding a way to bring him to Europe before he has to join the army. Hazem realizes his successful flight is a rare event and that thousands of men have failed, many paying with their lives. But he’ll still try.
Although Hazem’s story and the thousands more like his mean it has become “harder to find recruits,” the Syrian army is “not in danger of collapsing,” the Institute for the Study of War’s Kozak said. Assad is relying increasingly on volunteer and foreign fighters. Iran is also working hard to fill the gaps in Syrian manpower, sending in thousands of fighters from its proxies in Iraq, as well as Shiite Afghans who now fight for Iran after taking refuge there from their own war. And Assad’s most powerful weapon has always been his air force, which remains unrivaled by any rebel faction.
But the days of Assad fighting without foreign help are over, and for many pro-opposition Syrians, the national revolution they launched in 2011 is dead. There’s nothing left in Syria worth fighting for, they say.
“At the end, we lost, Bashar lost, the people lost, the government is destroyed. The people left there have hearts harder than rocks, [they] are monsters,” Madame Hind said. And despite this, she added, “The Syrian government is still standing. The war is still on.”