Syrian Regime Hunts Down Men Dodging Mandatory Army Service

Young would-be soldiers duck Syria's military service mandate
Young would-be soldiers duck Syria's military service mandate
Syria Deeply
Gayath Abd Alaziz and Karen Leigh

DAMASCUS — Across the country, an increasing number of would-be soldiers are ducking Syria's mandatory 18-month military service requirement.

In most cases, the young men are either hiding out — or taking up arms for the opposition.

Hossam, a 26-year-old from Hama, has been summoned by the Syrian army to fulfill the compulsory 18-month service required of all young men here. But three years into a conflict that has killed more than 62,800 fighters from all sides, he is refusing to comply.

"The Syrian army is no longer the nation's army, and nothing motivates me to join it," he says.

But despite large swaths of Syria having shifted from government to rebel control, it's still illegal to dodge military service. So for nearly a year, Hossam has been hiding out from government authorities who patrol large areas of Hama.

Thousands of young Syrian men are following suit. Since the conflict began in 2011, a steady stream of young men have elected to dodge their compulsory service. The numbers are particularly pronounced in rebel-held areas, where army officials — desperately in need of additional manpower — constantly hunt for truants.

Many choose to leave Syria, escaping to neighboring Lebanon or Turkey. Others, like Hossam, hide in their towns and villages, or escape to areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. And some are fighting, but with rebel brigades.

Military service has been compulsory in Syria since 1955, before the days of Assad family rule. Every man who reaches 18 and has no male siblings is required by law to serve 18 months in the Syrian army. The requirement used to be 21 months, but seeking to deflect public anger in the early days of the revolution, President Bashar al-Assad decreased it in spring 2011.

In December of that year, a statement from army defector Colonel Riad al-Asaad said the number of defectors had reached 40,000. Since then, the government has been widely accused of refusing to allow many soldiers to leave at the end of their mandated tours of duty.

The last group to be released from compulsory service was on Jan. 1, 2012. Since then, new conscripts often find themselves serving open-ended terms. Many say they have served three years or more, without being allowed days off.

Soldier defections

Mohammed, in his 20s, is from rural Idlib province and joined the Syrian army in 2010, less than a year before the start of the conflict. After serving on the mountainous southern front of Qalamoun, he defected in 2012 and now lives in Ghazi Eintab, Turkey.

He says the soldiers were the first to be sent to dangerous front-line fighting, while army officials stayed behind in barracks. "We didn't feel the situation was equal," he says. "This is why my friends and I defected."

The vast majority of men who volunteer to serve in the Syrian army are from the Alawite strongholds of Latakia and Tartous on the Syrian coast, where Assad is still largely popular and where his army maintains control.

Maher, a 30-year-old army sergeant from rural Latakia, came to the army through mandatory backup service — the government's call to civilian men over age 40. Having already served their mandatory stints, thousands of Alawites have now returned for a second round, providing the regime with desperately needed manpower.

Then there are men like Wasim. When he was summoned for backup service, the 29-year-old volunteered not for the Syrian army itself, but for the National Defense Forces, a civilian militia that supports Assad's forces and whose demands on the ranks can be lax.

"I get paid 15,000 Syrian pounds ($100) per month in salary from the militia," he says. "I give it to the officer in charge as a bribe, and in turn he is OK with me not showing up. Instead, I work as a house painter."

But Wasim's double duty could soon come to an end because the government has initiated a campaign to ensure that those called for backup service are fulfilling their obligation.

The government has also begun to crack down on draft dodgers, threatening families in order to pressure their sons to don the uniform of the Syrian army.

Last summer, in the Tartous town of Qadmous, residents say security forces detained 11 children so that their older brothers would surrender themselves as conscripts in exchange for their release.

Once enlisted, defection has become close to impossible. "They took our cell phones, and we are not allowed to make any calls," says one sergeant from Deir Ezzor. "This makes coordinating a defection impossible. I have not had any days off for the past 18 months. My father and my brother passed away when the air force shelled our neighborhood. I could not even attend their funeral."

Fawaz, a soldier from Idlib, did manage to defect from his mandatory 18-month service a year ago. He expected to have to hide out from government forces. But when he arrived home to his rebel-controlled village, he discovered it was the opposition that wanted to arrest him, because he had served with the military.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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