A steady stream of Syrians are joining the National Defense Force, a loyalist reserve force set up in 2012 by President Bashar al-Assad. For many it's the only way to make a living.
DAMASCUS — In October 2012, Ahmed, a sergeant in the Syrian army, was fired after losing his weapon. He joined the National Defense Force (NDF) as a career move: To him, it was just another job.
"I have two children and I had to provide for them," says the 34-year-old from a town north of Damascus. "There was no other choice but to join the National Defense Force, because they offered a monthly salary to anyone who joined."
Since the conflict began in 2011, a steady stream of men have elected to dodge their compulsory military service, avoiding a dangerous fight in rebel-held areas. But now many of them are deciding to join the National Defense Force, a loyalist reserve force used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2012. The NDF is deployed to back up a Syrian army that has seen its ranks depleted by death, injury, desertion — and has been further stretched as new fronts open against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Among the central motivation for many new recruits are financial reasons. The NDF ranks are often more appealing than the rigor imposed by the Syrian army; service isn't compulsory, while monthly salaries can provide for families left back home.
Ahmed says he makes 15,000 Syrian pounds per month with the NDF — just under $100. But he says fighters also make money from fees collected from drivers at checkpoints and road blocks, and from the spoils of battle.
"We have direct orders to collect whatever we want," he says. "Our commanders tell us: "The properties of your enemies are lawfully yours." And then they take whatever they want as well."
Soon after the NDF's formation, Ahmed says trainers were brought in from Hezbollah and the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards — both allies of the Assad regime. Ahmed says new recruits were also trained for battle by officers from Syria's own Republican Guard.
Ahmed's first mission saw him fighting alongside the Syrian army to break a rebel siege on a strategic military location in eastern Ghouta. On another occasion he went into Yabroud to back up Syrian army fighters.
"In Ghouta we were under the command of a general from the Syrian army," he says. "In Yabroud, we took orders from a Hezbollah commander, because there were Hezbollah fighters alongside us. We were at the front with Hezbollah, and we were charged with checking the areas that the Syrian air force had shelled."
For those who join solely for the financial benefits, injuries can end a career. The NDF often does not follow through on keeping injured soldiers on retainer, or on weaving them back into the fighting rotation. In 2013, Munther, a 29-year-old recruit, was injured while fighting in Aleppo province.
"After the injury I went home to recover. But my leave has been unpaid," he said. To make ends meet he's currently working as a private Arabic language tutor.
The NDF earned a fearsome reputation among some civilian populations. Ismael, 52, lives in an area of southern Damascus that came under NDF control after falling to the regime. "They cause constant pain in our lives," he says. "They are terrorizing people. Our homes are raided and searched for no reason, whenever they feel like it."
But others have a different point of view. In areas with heavy support for the Assad regime, residents say the NDF's fighters need to exert such force to protect their neighborhoods. "The NDF is justified in its ways," says Alaa, who lives in the loyalist stronghold of Tartous. "They keep the area secure and protect it from rebel forces."