Friday, 22 July 2016
Seeing no future, deserters and draft-dodgers flee Syria
'Nasser lifts another cigarette to his mouth with a scarred left hand, chain smoking and watching action films on a grainy TV at his friend's flat in a Beirut suburb. Since deserting President Bashar al-Assad's army he mostly avoids venturing outdoors.
He limits his movements to a few hundred yards from this temporary accommodation, fearing arrest for squatting in Lebanon illegally. Nasser used an alias for fear of identification by Lebanese or Syrian authorities.
Many young Syrian men are deserting like Nasser or dodging the draft altogether to avoid the experiences that have left conscripts physically and mentally scarred and with an uncertain future. The prospect of being forced to fight in a civil war is a major factor driving them in large numbers to seek refuge in neighboring countries or Europe.
After his injuries and nearly three years of service, Nasser deserted and hid at home in Damascus for one year. He turned himself in when Assad announced an amnesty for deserters, but said he was immediately sent for 15 days of interrogation.
Instead of returning to his unit, Nasser fled to Lebanon, crossing illegally for fear of being turned back, and has moved from one location to another for months, struggling to find work and failing to obtain refugee status.
"I'm young but tired of life. Every time I see a military vehicle I'm scared, it's constant stress."
"There are guys who haven't seen their families for years while they've been in the army. Sometimes the families don't know if they're still alive," said Jawad, whose brother fled to Germany to avoid enlistment. "I don't want to kill anyone. It's an injustice that someone who doesn't want to fight is forced to," Jawad added. He wants to see his family in coastal Latakia, but will not return while the war rages for fear of being drafted.
Kheder Khaddour of the Carnegie Middle East Center said the number serving in the army is likely to have shrunk considerably through defections, deaths, desertion and draft-dodging. "If it was 300,000 in the army, now it's less than half and probably less than that, that seems like a large number," Khaddour said.'