ERBIL, Iraq — Syria is no longer habitable. That is a recurring sentiment expressed by members of the war-ravaged country’s diaspora again and again, especially after an economic collapse in 2020 destroyed its already dismal prospects. Projections for this year look to be Syria’s worst yet. One factor adding to the anxiety about further financial disaster: Mandatory military service continues to fuel an exodus of young men who might never return to the country.
Runaways and draft dodging have become widespread phenomena, even for those who support the government. Slowly but surely, desertion through migration is draining Syria of some of its best and brightest—many of them now choosing to go to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), where conditions are only adding to the angst of those young men. For those who can’t get out, enlisting in militias or going to fight abroad may be the most lucrative opportunity left: War is big business.
Syria has had military conscription since long before its independence began in 1919. Initially, entry into the army was seen as a patriotic duty to protect the nation from foreign enemies as well as an opportunity for social mobility. The Arab diva Najah Salam reflected popular opinion singing a popular song named “Syria My Love” shortly after the country’s disastrous 1973 war with Israel: “The bullets of a gun, creating freedom for the proud nation, Oh my love.”
Later, as the country became bogged down in its 1976 occupation of Lebanon and 1982 crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama, enthusiasm for military service started to decline. The army earned a tongue-and-cheek epithet, the Army of Sandal-Wearers (Jaysh Abu Shahatah) due to its overall poor equipment and morale.
It has become harder to joke about military conscription since the outbreak of the brutal civil war over a decade ago, however. Poorly trained young men fear being sent to the frontlines to be used as cannon fodder, often against their own fellow citizens. Previously fixed two-year terms are now without end, and reservists have been reenlisted.
My interviews with nearly 20 Syrian military-age men in the KRI confirmed that before the current civil war, they tended to complete their military service regardless of personal reservations. The system offered a formalized mechanism of exemptions, for being an only son or certain medical issues, for example. University students received automatic postponements that could be extended depending on their employment status after graduation, and Syrians living outside the country could pay a fee in lieu of service.
Today, all men must register for compulsory military service at their local recruitment offices on turning 18. The right to conscientious objections is not recognized and there are no alternatives to military service in the law.
When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, many eligible men equated enlistment with a death sentence and deserted or dodged en masse. Interviewees explained that they hid to avoid checkpoints. They fled to areas outside government control or out of the country altogether. Evasion became so pervasive that in 2015, prisoners were offered reduced sentences in exchange for military service. The Syrian army was reduced from 300,000 before 2011 to as low as 80,000 in 2015, according to the Institute of the Study of War—the combined effect of high battlefield losses, the formation of the opposition Free Syrian Army and desertions.
The stakes are high. In peacetime, draft evasion was punished with one to six months’ imprisonment, after which offenders had to complete their military service in full. But in wartime, the act is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. In practice, however, runaways are usually sent back directly to the military.
Military-age men, defined by Syrian law as between ages 18 and 42, make up a fifth of the country’s population. (Due to personnel shortages, there have been reports of men as old as 50 directed to register for reserve duty and boys under the age of 18 conscripted to sustain Syria’s army.)
Draft evasion is considered the main reason young men flee Syria today, according to an in-depth report by the Norwegian immigration authorities (closely linked to economic prospects plummeting since 2020). A visit to any restaurant or café in the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq makes the mass exodus of Syrian men clear. Current estimates in this region range from 500,000 to a million, with tens to hundreds of Syrian men arriving each week from government-controlled areas by plane to Erbil.
In Sulaymaniyah, I met Azad working at a dark restaurant where men were drinking tea and smoking hookah as their families shopped at the aptly named Family Mall next door. With the low, dense build of a wrestler, he recounted how he ended up here, far from his native city of Afrin in northern Syria.
He entered the ill-fated recruitment class Dowra 102 in 2010—the last group to enter the army before the outbreak of war—and later became part of the 52nd Brigade in eastern Deraa, spending hours in simulators launching Russian-made Konkurs missiles against imaginary tanks.
It was in Deraa where anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011. Officers warned against deserters. “Shoot anyone who runs,” Azad recalled being told.
In the first two years of the conflict alone, desertion estimates varied between 20,000 and 100,000. Azad was hurt in a motorcycle accident and granted temporary leave to recuperate. Safe and reunited with his family in Afrin, he went AWOL. Even though he had served four years—two more than the legal requirement—and was now suffering chronic pain in his knee and lower back, he had broken the law.
In 2018, Afrin was captured by Turkey and the Syrian National Army who viewed the presence of the YPG on their border as an existential threat. Azad would not flee with his family to nearby government-controlled Aleppo, where he knew he would almost certainly be caught. Realizing he had to leave Syria, he arranged to be smuggled into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where his sister lived.
Several months after Azad made it to Sulaymaniyah, in October 2018, the Syrian government granted a general amnesty to Syrians accused of deserting or avoiding military service. Although Azad appeared to have qualified, he refused to return. The only thing worse than the uncertainty of starting life over elsewhere, he said, was having to rejoin and fight in the army.
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Youssef and his father sat outside a café in the shade in Sulaymaniyah. Their story reflects the wider experience of people ravaged by fighting and a ruined economy. None of Youssef’s university friends remain in Syria except for one who is exempt from military service as the only son in his family.
Sporting a Rockabilly pompadour, Youssef remembers receiving military education and wearing fatigues as early as the seventh grade in Syria. “Each year, we would get another stripe on our shoulders, like we were child officers,” he told me.
His father butted in: “Army service was normal. It was routine. Everyone did it. However, once war broke out, I became afraid. I pushed my son to leave.”
“If you stay you must fight. If you fight and survive then you won’t be able to find a way to make a living,” Youssef said. Syria faces severe wheat shortages due to its ongoing war as well as rising commodity prices due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and its worst drought in nearly 70 years; Russia recently suspended a deal to send wheat to the country. Leaning close to his father, Youssef said, “If the war doesn’t kill you, the living conditions will.”
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But others still see military service as a necessary responsibility. Zulfiqar from the city of Jablah on Syria’s coast—known for its large Alaawite community and support for the Syrian government—explained that he had options after earning his engineering degree in 2015. He initially worked on a merchant ship for two years, traveling to over 13 countries.
After ISIS carried out a string of eight bombings along Syria’s coast, killing close to 200 people in one day in 2016, Zulfiqar had nightmares with black hooded fighters attacking his family while they were having a barbeque on the beach. He felt guilty for being outside Syria and wanted to return to defend his country.
Joining the army felt synonymous with fighting ISIS, protecting his family and continuing in the tradition of his father and uncles who spoke about becoming men through their military service. Upon his enlisting, Zulfiqar recalled, his uncles told him, “After you finish the military, you will be ready for marriage, a job, to be a leader.”
As a college graduate, Zulfiqar joined the officer corps. However, upon starting his sixth-month officer training, he quickly realized the military was “bullshit.” “It will not build you as a man. It gets you ready for nothing.” He did not feel needed, nor did he see a military that invested resources into the officer class. On his base, he came across Rambo-like Russian soldiers and well-paid, well-fed militias. The other Syrian officers appeared only to care about receiving kickbacks. He heard stories about how ISIS would reportedly taunt and demoralize Syrian soldiers by throwing at them packets of Marlboro cigarettes and whole chickens.
Zulfiqar continued to support the Syrian government. But when he finally got a chance to be home with his family during a two-day break for the New Year, he immediately arranged to be smuggled to Lebanon on the same day he was meant to be deployed to Homs. He has been in Erbil ever since.
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With even previously staunch supporters like Zulfiqar deserting the military, the Syrian government implemented measures to further exploit the desperation of military aged men through a system of cash-for-exemption. It is part of the Syrian state’s larger fee-based governance strategy to target one of its remaining revenue streams. The cash-strapped government has also increased the costs for exemption; the fee for Syrians residing over four years outside Syria is $7,000. In the current setup, men are left deferring their futures and paying off the government for their basic freedoms.
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Conscription into the Syrian army is not the only military service Syrians are fleeing. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control northeast Syria, passed its first conscription law in 2014 while battling ISIS.
With a square, handsome face, Jian, originally from Al-Malikiyah, left Syria for Sulaymaniyah right after he dropped out of university. Jian has since visited his home only once in 2018 when he was 26. Although he thought he was exempt as an enrolled university student back in Iraq, one of the SDF checkpoint guards said that he had reached the age limit and had to enlist. Narrowly escaping, Jian decided not to risk another visit. Last year, he heard that anyone born before 1995 would no longer be required to serve the SDF, again prompting thoughts to visit his family. But he still has too many doubts to return.
Last of all the Syrians I met within the KRI, Ahmet—a 35 year-old Kurd from Qamishli—had the unfortunate honor of evading three different mandatory military services. Like others, he dodged both the Syrian army and the SDF. Then, in 2017—after securing Turkish citizenship in the hopes of securing a better future for his children—he was arrested and told he had to complete his Turkish military service. Fearing he would be deployed to Syria, Ahmet refused on moral grounds.
“They might send me to fight in Afrin [a predominately Kurdish area occupied by the Turkish military and its proxies] and shoot at my own people,” Ahmet said. He will soon pay the $3,000 exemption fee, he added.
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In general, it seems Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) sees young Syrian men as economic players. Hussein Kalary, the Director General for the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center, explained to me how Syrians are treated as de facto citizens, with free movement and the ability to work in the region. “I visited Syria several times before 2011, and Syrians are better off in Kurdistan today than they were in Syria before the war,” Kalary said. (No matter that Syrians without refugee protection require a work permit, which can cost up to $800.)
However, the quality of jobs available to Syrians does not offer much of a future. Highly coveted work in international humanitarian organizations and the gas industry have unofficial quotas for Syrian nationals. One hiring manager at a humanitarian organization, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the internal security services threaten not to renew a company or organization’s annual registration application if more than 25 percent of their staff is Syrian. Given Syria’s traditionally high levels of education, several Syrians I spoke to believe they are being put in low-paying positions while asked to teach Iraqi staff all they know, then pushed aside.
As Zuzu, a 24-year-old aspiring musician from Latakia who works in a bar, said, more and more Syrians come to Erbil each week to compete for the same jobs, driving down wages. With the annual cost of residency, food and rent, he doesn’t even break even each month. “I don’t earn a salary, barely the cost for living,” he said.
Ghazwan, a 30-year-old whose hazel eyes burrowed into the flint of his face, told me about a time he tried to negotiate a higher salary at the upscale Erbil restaurant where he worked, and his boss countered that he knew of tens of others waiting to take his place. “Well, if you don’t like it then you can always go back to Syria and fight,” Ghazwan recalled his boss telling him.
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In addition to military conscription for their own country, Syrians have recently been recruited—knowingly and unknowingly—en masse to fight in such far-flung places as Libya, Azerbaijan, even Venezuela.
Khalid, who boasts a Leontine head of hair and pale grey eyes, explained to me how he had left Syria to escape the military, but later returned to his hometown of Suweida from Erbil for what was meant to be a short visit. But it was March 2020, and he ended up being stuck for nine months due to Covid lockdowns. Several months in, with feelings of listlessness and entrapment growing, he seriously considered signing up with a Russian militia to fight in Libya.
“My uncle had just returned after a three-month stint in Libya. He was making ten times what someone could make in Suweida. I was this close to making the deal with the devil,” he confided. However, the border soon reopened, and he was able to return to Erbil.
Zuzu, the aspiring musician from Latakia, recalled how his childhood friend signed up with a militia to fight in Deir ezZor in southern Syria. As his friend shared, he became worried when the flight to Deir ezZor took much longer than expected. When the plane finally landed, Zuzu’s friend was handed a bottle of water. The label read “Made in Libya.”
Last month, Russia opened recruitment offices for Syrians to fight in Ukraine. According to one militia leader in Hama, who has been registering Syrian fighters, the monthly salary offered is $2,000. It is an attractive lifeline for a country where 90 percent of the population lives in poverty and a top engineer makes approximately $120 per month. Due to high turnout, there are even accounts of applicants bribing registration centers in order to be shortlisted. For those who can’t escape, combat experience appears to be one of the few marketable skills in significant demand.
In Erbil, dodgers from all sides of the conflict run into each other. “I bump into boys I haven’t seen since grade school here,” Zuzu said. According to the vast majority of Syrians in Iraq I interviewed, any man who has any sense is getting out of the country.
Zulfiqar sat on his bed in his room in Erbil. It was Mother’s Day, a major holiday back in Syria, and he wanted nothing more than to be back in his real bed back at his family’s home in Jablah being spoiled by his mother with good food. He recounted when he last met with the Syrian consular officer who was in Erbil to review passport applications as his was about to expire. When asked his current profession, Zulfiqar said he was a chef’s assistant. The officer responded: “You were once a lieutenant in the Syrian army. That’s a great honor. Is working in a restaurant better?”
“Before you judge me, ask yourself whether you would send your sons to the military.” Zulfiqar said in response, staring up at the ceiling, “I don’t want to die. So yes, this is better.”
 The offer was made only to criminals including murderers, thieves and drug smugglers. Those imprisoned for political crimes allegedly were not included.
 The Syrian National Army is part of the Free Syrian Army, which weakened from infighting and lack of funding.
 Al-Tafyeesh refers to bribes soldiers pay officers in return for regular or long-term leaves.
Top photo: View of Erbil, Iraq, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region (Saad Saim, Unsplash)