Military Reserve Business Thrives in Syrian Coast

An overview of all the expedients Syrians have to go through to escape reserve service, and how this is feeding a corrupted business in regime-held areas.

25 October 2017

Hazem Mustafa

Hazem Mustafa (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Latakia.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

(Latakia) Ali[i], a 28-year-old engineer from Latakia, is growing anxious. A list of more than 100 names were rumored to have been leaked to social media. Those were the names of reservists who had been exempted but are now being reenlisted. The list is said to have been circulated to all relevant authorities, and these men will once again be thrown into the frontlines. Ali’s name is on that list.

Two days ago, the unmarried young man had to run for about half a kilometer in the agricultural fields to escape the security patrol in charge of catching draft dodgers in Latakia. The patrol is always accompanied by a minivan that immediately transfers the wanted men to the capital, and places them at the disposal of combat units.

In an interview with Syria Untold, Ali said that at first the policeman was satisfied with less than $10 to write down that “the address is unknown to the authorities.” The second time, however, he asked for a larger sum ($50). After a lengthy argument, Ali refused, and the policeman reported that Ali was officially informed of his enlistment.

He became wanted, with his name circulated across all checkpoints, patrols and police stations. “Because I am only eligible for a non-combat military duty, as I have a chronic skin condition, I’d been able to get exempted from the reserves after paying nearly $10,000 through relevant [corruption] networks.”

This did not relieve Ali’s fears, however. “What scares me today is that this sum has gone straight down the drain after many of those [connections] were arrested and transferred to the military courts, as was circulated on social media.”

The age of reserve service ranges between the standard conscription age of 18 years and 40 years, the age of exemption from reserve duty, which nevertheless does not exclude general mobilization (up to 60 years). Furthermore, there have been several cases in which the ages of those wanted (or of those conscripted) exceeded 42 years, which often stirred confusion among the Syrian public.

The demand for military reserves surged between 2014 and 2016. Military operations in the country escalated significantly and all state - and regime-associated factions - were required to secure more fighters for ongoing battles. The primary supply has been direct enlistment of those of the age of reserve service, especially public employees. Leaks indicate that, in June 2016, the number of those wanted for mandatory and reserve service in Syria exceeded half a million.

Real and Forged Health Exemptions

Those seeking exemption from reserve service have used countless ploys in their pursuit. While some of them had legal recourse, others resorted to fabricating justifications to be exempted.

The most prominent of such maneuvers was the so-called health exemption. Theoretically, it is determined by the Military Service Decree and its executive provisions, and covers several cases of illness in times of peace and war. Decisions are made by the medical committees in the areas of recruitment and mobilization, as well as by holders of higher degrees. They are then forwarded to the Military Medical Council, the entity with the highest prerogative for exemption from the service, and are finally approved by the Chief of Staff and the Minister of Defense.

Khaled, a 29-year-old exempt, recounted his experience to SyriaUntold. “Originally, and according to my service documents, I’m a conscript who’d serve in support [non-combat] units. I have chronic asthma with official proof and have benefited from this disease in my application, in cooperation with the head of the recruitment division and then in the capital. The process cost me around 5 million SYP [$10,000], but for those who feign illnesses it’s much costlier.”

The Military Medical Council is composed of a military doctor with the rank of major-general and a committee of ten other doctors in the officer class, who perform medical examination procedures for the exemption applicants. The process costs between $14,000 and $20,000, and requires full discretion, if the condition is fabricated.

Offices that are undisclosed to the public exist in many governorates. They are run in secret by individuals working for influential people within the General Recruitment Directorate or Staff, and they can provide exemption from service or reserve for similar amounts of money. Their most common practices are concealing or deliberately losing the files of persons of interest, and amending their status on government computers.

The clients of such offices are clearly those able to pay those large sums, and on occasion the exempted person becomes wanted for reserve once again if he fails to make due payments.

Unpredictable Police Patrols

With the continuous loss in regime manpower in the conflict, demand for reserve recruitment increased, and so did the rate of those dodging the reserve draft. The authority resorted to more stringent measures, the most prominent of which remain on-foot patrols in the streets. These patrols come from various agencies, such as Military Police, State Security and Air Force Intelligence; the puniest of them is Civilian Police.

In black cars with tinted windows [which Syrians comically refer to as “Kamel’s Mother” (Umm Kamel)], these patrols roam the streets with ambush tactics, unspecified timings and sometimes even civilian attire. They are regularly stationed near roads which are not escapable, such as international highways or intersections in neighborhoods, towns and villages.

The patrols receive up to US $100 in return for each letting go of a wanted person, which is repeatable according to his dire luck. Qusay (32), who works in the gold market, recalled having to pay $100 in one day to each of two patrols, one from the Military Security and the other from the State Security.

The conscription of youths to the army reserves is often arbitrary and without due legal process, as those who are not wanted could also be conscripted under the guise of general mobilization. Qusay added that the constant fear of being drafted to reserve has confined him to his home, as patrols are stationed in a town square near his shop.

The documents carried by those exempted from reserve or service sometimes do not help them when faced with patrols. Therefore, a citizen whose identity or service documents are taken becomes at the mercy of the patrols and the laptop they carry.

“You simply cannot ensure you are not wanted for reserve even if you are exempted from service,” said Ibrahim, a 32-year-old freelancer. “Names change ‘from above’ every other hour, often according to the whims of these very patrols. They could simply transfer an unwanted person along with those who are wanted, and then drag them to battle without permitting a single phone call. It could take at least two months attempting to escape such bondage, often after paying large sums. It is a grinder of men.”

Wholesale Draft and Retail Bribes

Hasan (43), a former public employee in Latakia, was wanted for reserves regardless of the age ceiling being set at 42 years. Despite his repeated attempts and dozens of applications, he has failed to be discharged and is currently serving on the Jobar front in Rif Dimashq.

The person who reported Hasan to the reserve was his administrative manager. Hasan was named among those whose duties can be dispensed with. There have been several cases of men who have exceeded the legal age limit, but failed to escape the clutch of the draft because army commanders were reluctant to discharge them.

In 2012, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers passed Decree No. 12, requesting the provision of security guard duty to all public-sector institutions, then followed by a request to send lists of names of those whose services can be disposed in all public institutions. This further paved the way for company managers and security officers’ corruption; whoever is unable to pay is nominated for reserve service.

When this practice drew the Council’s attention, another request was sent for electronic lists of all employees, including data about their age, their military service and health status. This left the selection process for reserves recruitment to the central computer system.

However, the recruitment office became a trap, as public employees referred to it have to pay to attain any paper proving that they are not wanted for reserves. Paper remains the primary means of processing cases and, given the considerable degradation of the military’s administrative apparatus and the existing restrictions on mobility, any document can be issued without central verification.

Nonetheless, on-foot patrols with laptops linked to the General Recruitment Directorate have curbed corruption attempts, especially for university students, who are the most wanted for reserves.

This does not, however, mean that rules and regulations are being adhered to. Mazen (39), a Tartus-based company manager, admitted that after being drafted for reserves and spending two months at a military base, he had to pay up to $2,000 to resolve the issue and be able to leave.

“The reserve somehow reached me, and I couldn’t convince the staff of the Recruitment Division that a presidential decree prevents my service because my brother is already in the army. I was asked to join and apply for exemption later, so I joined and began the discharge application, but to no avail. At last, I met a staff member who followed my case after receiving the agreed upon amount, and I was finally discharged after arduous efforts.”

[Main image: The military reserve business in Syria (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].

[i] Pseudonyms were used for security reasons.

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