Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 July 2019

With army ranks halved, Syria urges people to enlist with billboards

Billboards have sprung up across the capital of Damascus reading, "Join the army", "We are the army", and "With our army, we'll win our country".
Two men walk past a billboard in the Syrian capital Damascus, which calls on young men and women to enlist in the country's army. Louai Beshara/AFP Photo
Two men walk past a billboard in the Syrian capital Damascus, which calls on young men and women to enlist in the country's army. Louai Beshara/AFP Photo

DAMASCUS // With the Syrian army’s ranks depleted by casualties and rampant draft-dodging, a new campaign in the war-torn country is urging citizens to enlist.

In recent weeks, billboards have sprung up across the capital Damascus reading, “Join the army,” “We are all the army,” and “With our army, we’ll win our country”.

The campaign is the work of a pro-government organisation known as the “Syrian Women’s Group for Good Deeds,” which includes mothers and daughters of Syrian soldiers.

One billboard shows two soldiers in fatigues, a man saluting and a woman pointing, under the phrases: “Our army means us” and “Join the army.”

Another shows a soldier in uniform next to a smiling girl with her hand raised in a victory sign.

More than 80,000 soldiers and other pro-regime fighters have been killed in the four-year conflict, out of a total of roughly 230,000 dead, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

In addition to this, many Syrians – even those who support the regime – have been reluctant to show up for mandatory two-year military service, with up to 70,000 failing to enlist, the Observatory says.

The combination of casualties, defections, and draft-dodging has seen the country’s 300,000-strong military halved in size since the conflict began in March 2011.

Last week, as part of efforts to convince people to serve, prime minister Wael Halaqi announced that, from July, soldiers at the front would receive monthly bonuses of 10,000 Syrian pounds (Dh194.52) as well as an extra hot meal each day.

A security source said that the measures, said to have been ordered by president Bashar Al Assad himself, “fall under the framework of support and motivation” for the army.

Last year, the law was amended to guarantee that public sector employees who left to do their military service would still have their jobs when they returned.

A key contributor to draft-dodging has been the reluctance of people to serve far from home, as the law has generally stipulated, but authorities appear to be showing leniency on that.

A security official in Homs told local radio station, Sham FM, on Thursday that new recruits would not have to serve outside of the central province.

He urged “all those who have delayed their military service or failed to enlist ... to regularise their status so they can carry out their military service exclusively inside Homs province”.

And in the province of Sweida, residents said that authorities were allowing residents of the majority Druze region to join local pro-regime militias instead of the army.

But for some, those incentives have not been enough, and there have been regular reports of raids to sweep up draft-dodgers.

Witnesses said that in recent days, armed security personnel had raided several districts in Damascus in search of military-aged men.

Some men have paid smugglers to help them leave the country in order to avoid conscription.

“I can’t go to military service,” said Sam, a 29-year-old engineer from Homs living in Damascus.

“These days, those who go the army don’t come back.”

* Agence France-Presse

Updated: July 3, 2015 04:00 AM