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Military Personnel

By 2018 there was a curfew for young men aged between 20 and 40 in Damascus, as a result of their refusal to join the Syrian army. Many people joined the army by force, after they were arrested on checkpoints on their way to work. They were sorted to serve the army in the countryside of Damascus. Some of them were government-sector employees and had served the army years ago.

On journalist living in Damascus told Al Arabiya 05 December 2018 that even people who did not express any political opinion throughout the war were being dragged to join the army, adding that the regime is not showing mercy to anyone. The journalist, himself scared of being dragged into the army, said that Assads Recruitment Public Administration does not update its data. They have previously sent letters asking young men, who passed away during the war, to join the army. In an attempt to express how bad the situation is, he said: The regime would pull out the dead from their graves and make them join the army, if it could.

Whoever pays huge bribes to those close to the regime can get away with not joining the army, but those who do not have connections or the money will have to join even if they have reason not to; such as studying or having previously served the army. Despite the regime previously announcing amnesty to those who did not join, locals say that it is just ink on paper and that it was made to trick them into leaving their houses, only for them to be detained and forced to join the army.

No one knows the size of the Syrian army. Estimates range from thousands of troops, to hundreds of thousands of troops. By the end of 2017, analysts put the number of offensive-capable fighters in the SAA at no more than 25,000 the majority of which were in the Republican Guard and 4th Division units. In 2019 IISS attributed a strength of about 100,000 troops to the Syrian Arab Army, which seems about right.

In October 2016 Paul Wood reported that "a senior Russian official astonished a visiting American delegation by telling them that the Syrian army could field only 6,000 capable and loyal troops for a big operation. Officially, the Syrian Arab Army is 125,000 strong. The paper strength of the Syrian army is meaningless, said Tobias Schneider, a German military analyst who has done some of the best work on the regimes forces. The only thing is how much money they pay a month to somebody. Offensives in this war are 1,000 people. Anybody who actually had the numbers they claim would be able to capture the whole of Syria."

The Syrian military reportedly had more than 300,000 soldiers in 2016, with an additional 400,000 reserve members, most of whom were on active service [according to VOA 26 November 2016 - it was not too clear where these numbers came from, but they would give Syria the world's fifth largest army, after China but ahead of Israel]. According to IISS, in 2016 Syrian ground forces included 90,000 regular army, 100,000 National Defence Fores, and 50,000 other milita. This total of 240,000 did not include any reservists, which were not mentioned by IISS.

These troops were spread across the country, fighting various rebel forces as well as pockets of IS resistance. With nearly 5 million refugees abroad, and about 6.6 million refugees internally displaced, by 2016 the pool of possible volunteers was greatly diminished. Syria had already pulled most 18-year-olds into mandatory service and their terms had been extended past two years as Syria's civil war continued. Thousands of young recruits, too, reportedly deserted the army and fled the country, further depleting government forces.

Syrian government forces relied heavily on foreign militias since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Iran and Russia have been staunch allies, with Russian bombers taking on a bulk of the aerial campaign and Iran providing ground forces. Elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, along with Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Afghan and Pakistan mercenaries, have fought alongside Syrian troops. In parts of Damascus and Homs provinces, Iranian-led troops have been the primary forces against rebels. But Tehran's commitment to provide additional servicemen to aid Syrian government forces had declined.

The announcement in November 2016 by Syria's embattled military that it would form an all-volunteer unit was an indication that the government is struggling in its fight against rebels and the Islamic State group. "The Syrian regime is running low on manpower," said Syrian researcher Khorshid Alika, who closely observes the dynamics of Syria's civil war. "They need additional reinforcements on so many fronts, particularly in Aleppo, Damascus and Hama."

The new division "will fight alongside other military units and our allied forces in Syria" and will officially allow civilians to take part in the fight for the first time, a Syrian government military official said in a televised statement this week. The decision was made "in response to the rapid development of events, to support the successes of armed forces, and to meet people's wishes to put an end to terrorist acts in the Syrian Arab Republic," the statement said.

The unit, to be known as "The Fifth Attack Troops Corps of Volunteers," will consist of men and women over age 18 who are "not already eligible for military service or deserters," the statement said.

The IISS Military Balance for 2013 reported that "The nominal pre-war strength of the army has likely been reduced by half: the result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties. The most capable and reliable of those remaining are the mainly Alawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the elite 3rd and 4th divisions: perhaps 50,000 troops in total." Salem Zahran, an analyst and journalist who met regularly with leaders of the Assad government, said in May 2013 that "The army is 70 percent Sunni, and so the regime kept a lot of them in their barracks".

Pre-War Personnel

The vast majority of manpower for the Syrian armed forces came from male conscription, which had been compulsory and universal (only the small Jewish community is exempted) since 1946 and was officially reaffirmed by the Service of the Flag Law in 1953. Females are not required to serve, although some do; however, they play more a public relations than a military role. Males must register for the draft at 18. In 1985 it was estimated that of the country's population of over 10 million, 1.25 million were males fit for military service. Each year around 125,000 reached 19, which was when the 30-month conscription period began. By 2010 it was estimated that of the country's population of over 22.6 million, 5 million were males fit for military service. Each year around 250,000 reached 19, which was when the 18-month conscription period [as of 2012] began.

The Syria had twice reduced the time of service - from 30 months to 24 months in 2005 and again to 21 months in 2009 - reportedly due in part to popular opposition to forced conscription. University students can postpone their military service until after graduation, a rule many college students take advantage of. In addition to only sons, men "infected with chronic disease or other maladies preventing the infected from exerting any efforts" are exempted. Expatriate Syrians can avoid conscription if they pay $6,500, a sum reduced from $15,000 in 2009.

Look at the conscripts in the army. They are Bedouin, Kurdish, or poor. Young Syrian men report these exemptions are applied unevenly by local military conscription boards, and some allege bribery can keep a young man out of the army. One way or another, they find a way to pay their way out of the requirement. One of the most commonly abused exemptions is the health exemption. Young men fake their health problems, pay off conscription boards, and get out of military service. Those speak French or English can go study in the West.

Syria remained technically in a state of war with Israel, and official propaganda routinely cites the national service requirement as evidence of the commitment of Syrian youth to defending their country. Thus, it is unlikely the requirement will be scrapped anytime soon. Given anger among many young Syrians over the seemingly uneven application of the law, however, public pressure may continue for further reform of the service requirement in the years to come.

Before the rise to power of the Baath Party in 1963, middle and upper class youths, who have rarely been attracted to military service, were often exempted from conscription on payment of a fee. Since then, this practice has been eliminated, although youths living abroad in Arab countries continued to be exempted on payment of a fee set by law. University students were exempted, but many attended military training camps during the summer, and all were obligated to do military service upon completion of their studies. Observers stated that those conscripted in the mid-1980s represented a broad cross section of society.

Conscripts faced a series of options in the Syrian Army. After completion of his period of conscription, a man could enlist for five years in the regular service or, if he chose not to enlist, he would serve as a reservist for eighteen years. If he enlisted and became a noncommissioned officer during his fiveyear service, he could become a professional noncommissioned officer. A volunteer who did not attain noncommissioned officer status could reenlist but was automatically discharged after fifteen years of service or upon reaching age forty. A professional noncommissioned officer was retired at age fortyfive or, at his own request, after twenty years of service.

Conscripts and enlisted men generally lacked mechanical and technical skills, although beginning in the 1970s the number of conscripts who had completed the six years of primary school increased dramatically, as did the number of secondary and vocational school graduates. The rugged rural origin of most conscripts has conditioned them to endure hardship and accept strict discipline. Military service has given most recruits the opportunity to improve their health and, because they receive technical training during most of their active duty, to leave the service with a marketable skill.

Officers have tended to be less representative of the general society than conscripts, primarily because of the high degree of politicization of the officer corps. Although officers were not required to join the Baath Party, membership was a crucial factor for advancement to flag rank.

In addition to political loyalty, the officer corps was characterized by the dominance of the Alawi and Druze minorities, a condition dating from the French Mandate policy of recruiting these and other minority groups into the colonial military forces. Although many of the officers were Sunni Muslim, most of the key senior posts were held by Alawis.

The general atmosphere and the amenities associated with military life have steadily and considerably improved since 1946. With rare exceptions, Syrian government and political leaders have recognized the need for favorable conditions of service so as to maintain the loyalty of their primary source of power. Officers, for example, were reported to be able to buy automobiles without the usual 200-percent duty and to obtain interest-free government loans for down payments on living quarters.

The life of the ordinary soldier, however, was not an easy one. His daily routine was concentrated and arduous, and discipline was strict and often severe. However, a long-range program of construction and rehabilitation, initiated during the early 1960s, improved the living conditions on many bases. Quarters, food, and pay compared favorably with what a worker could obtain in the civilian economy. Accrual of leave, retirement, medical care, and other benefits also made military service attractive. There were no reliable figures on military pay, but the indications were that rates were relatively high by the standards of many other Arab armies. There were also supplementary allowances for both officers and enlisted men, which in many cases totaled more than the basic rate. For example, various specialists, both officers and enlisted, received substantial amounts of technical pay. Additional compensation for flight personnel, paratroops, and men engaged in other kinds of hazardous duty had been established.

Improved conditions of service have improved morale in the ranks. The relative political stability of the 1970s and 1980s also raised morale. The previous three decades had witnessed frequent changes of government by military coups d'tat, leading to purges, imprisonments, or the execution of officers associated with the deposed regime. Under Assad, the top army ranks have felt more secure. The ambitious rebuilding of the armed forces also increased the prestige and morale of the military. Nevertheless, the occupation and frequent fighting in Lebanon reportedly affected the army's morale. Frequent rotation of troops limited exposure to an unsatisfactory military situation and the corrupting influences of the war-torn Lebanese environment and reduced periods that soldiers were away from their families.

The typical enlisted man, whether a conscript or a volunteer, came from a traditional authoritarian Muslim family and accepted discipline as a regular requirement of military life. A system of military courts existed to try cases involving disciplinary and criminal offenses in the armed forces.

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Page last modified: 12-01-2020 19:07:23 ZULU