Monday, 16 January 2017
Desperate Assad conscripting 50-year-olds as beleaguered Syrian regime forces halved by deaths, defections and draft-dodging
'Karim Habib never imagined he would join the millions of refugees fleeing his country, but on Monday he got a call he had long been dreading.
A friend in the Syrian army informed him that he would soon be called up for military service, which the 48-year-old oil worker believed was long behind him. He decided to pack his bags and head for the border.
“I did not think they would come for me,” he says from a relative’s house in Beirut, the capital of neighbouring Lebanon. “But they are recruiting more men now than at any other time during the war. The regime is so desperate they are coming for anyone that can carry a weapon. The age limit is supposed to be 42, but now even those in their 50s and those with health problems are having to fight.
"They are being stationed around the country - manning checkpoints in Aleppo and even on the frontlines around Damascus,” he said.
Reservists in Bashar al-Assad’s coastal heartland of Latakia also received orders late last month to immediately report for duty with the newly formed 5th Corps.
President Assad’s regime may appear stronger than ever, propped up by its Russian and Iranian allies and fresh from victory in Aleppo, but its beleaguered army is struggling.
The 300,000-strong pre-war force has been halved by deaths, defections and draft-dodging.
“There are no longer any men between 18-50 on the streets any more,” Mr Habib - using a pseudonym to protect his family still in Syria - said. “Those who try to avoid the call are imprisoned and tortured, so I felt I had no option but to leave.”
Mr Habib had a good job working as a manager at an oil company in the capital - making him one of the middle class Syria will desperately need when the conflict is over and the country tries to get back on its feet.
For now he waits in Beirut for his wife and three young children to be granted visas for Germany, where he holds citizenship and hopes to start a new life.
But many others in Mr Habib’s position did not have the option of fleeing.The United Nations has raised concerns that as many as 6,000 men of military age are missing after heading from east Aleppo into government-controlled areas.
“The regime has a serious manpower problem, which has so far been compensated by tens of thousands of foreign fighters and loyalist militias along with the Russian air force and Iranian advisers,” Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, told the Telegraph. “How it will control the territory it captures if the foreigners get bored and leave is an important question.”
With the Russians announcing a military scale-back and its most battle-hardy ally Hizbollah suffering huge casualties, the regime is having to dig deep.
Despite the ceasefire, brokered by Moscow and Ankara, government forces have continued offensives on strategic areas and are in need of troops to help reclaim them.
The regime is keen to regain control of the outskirts of Damascus, the capital and seat of power in Syria. The town of Wadi Barada is of greatest importance as the valley is the primary source of water for five million people.
Government forces have in recent days been pummelling the besieged town with air strkes and artillery fire on the ground.
“Damascus and the surrounding suburbs are at the top of Assad’s bucket list,” said Mr Itani. “Once that’s in hand, he will turn his attention to holdout pockets in Homs and Hama, and then Idlib.”
Idlib, which is controlled by a messy alliance of rebel groups dominated by the Islamist Jaish Fateh al-Sham, is now the largest opposition stronghold.
The government has been using it as a holding pen, sending rebel fighters from east Aleppo and other areas which have surrendered under so-called reconciliation deals. Mr Assad has promised to retake the whole country, but it is likely a promise he cannot keep. It may be some time before Mr Habib is able to return.'
“All I know is that I cannot serve for this brutal regime which has destroyed the country,” he says. “There can be no peace under Assad. Most who have fled will not return until he is gone.”