By Kadar Ahmad and Avery Edelman

KOBANE: Young men in this northern Syrian city are fleeing in large numbers, fearing a conscription campaign that seeks to boost enlistment for the U.S.-backed coalition of forces currently fighting the Islamic State.

Kobane—also known as Ain al-Arab—and its surrounding villages form one of three self-declared “cantons” in northern Syria that are governed by the Self-Administration, a coalition of Arab and Kurdish parties led by the dominant Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Prior to the start of the Syrian conflict, the canton, which is located along the Turkish-Syrian border in northeastern Aleppo province and whose population is about 90 percent Kurdish, was known for a thriving agricultural industry and as a transit point for Kurdish leaders traveling between Turkey and Syria.

Before the start of the Syrian conflict, Kobane provided 40 percent of Aleppo’s wheat supply. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.

Kobane grew to further prominence as a focal point of the Syrian conflict in late 2014 when the Islamic State imposed a crippling siege on the city, leaving it in ruins and nearly devoid of residents.

The subsequent battle between the Islamic State and the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which was backed by the U.S.-led coalition, came to symbolize the potential for an alliance of Kurdish forces and the western coalition to successfully drive out the Islamic State.

The YPG is now fighting as the primary component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) offensive to take Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

In an effort to boost recruitment for that campaign, the Self Administration has launched repeated campaigns to conscript local men, most recently releasing a statement calling on citizens in Kobane to report to “self-defense duty.”

The March statement said enforcement of the call would begin on April 15 and that military duty would consist of nine months of service for those who join voluntarily—and a year for draft dodgers.

YPG forces undergo training in Kobane. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.

The Self-Administration maintains that mandatory service is necessary to protect the region from the Islamic State and other militant groups.

However, many young men are fleeing Kobane in order to avoid the draft, saying that the SDF’s current offensive on Raqqa, a largely-Arab city, is not their battle to fight.

Bankeen, 19, told the Syrian Voice that he is seriously considering illegal migration from his home in Kobane to Turkey as an alternative to serving.

“I don’t have the option to stay here with my family,” he said. “The conscription drives are coming one after another, turning the city into a ghost town.”

Military service enforced in Kobane despite criticism

Military service has been mandatory for men aged 18 to 30 in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria since mid-2014 but the draft was not enforced in the Kobane canton, where residents were subject to the crippling Islamic State siege and a subsequent Islamic State attack on the city in June 2015 which left at least 145 civilians dead.

Last summer, however, 160 civilians from Kobane were conscripted to serve in the YPG, marking the beginning of a campaign to enlist Kobane residents and surprising many in the city who felt they had suffered enough.

A military conscription center was unveiled in Kobane in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.

Since then, at least 400 men in Kobane have been conscripted to serve, according to ARA News, but criticism of the campaign led the local administration to pause its efforts at the end of February, offering time for young men to “settle their situation.”

That suspension lasted until the most recent recruitment drive began on April 15.

Among the most outspoken critics of the “self-defense duty” is the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a political faction that rivals the PYD, which released a statement on February 28 condemning what it called a “hysterical recruitment campaign” in the city.

The KNC accused the PYD of “plunging all men ages 18 to 35 into battles that they have no interest in and that only serve foreign agendas.”

It continued, “Instead of providing the minimum necessities for life and encouraging residents to return [to Kobane], the PYD is undertaking practices that increase suffering and push the remaining Kurdish population either toward migration or the turmoil of war.”

Mazloum Ahmad, who works with a civil society organization in Kobane, said around 60 percent of the city’s young men have left.

“There are no solutions on the horizon to stop this bleeding, as long as mandatory conscription continues,” he added.

Emad, 26, is one of the young men who fled Kobane due to fears that he would be drafted.

Emad told the Syrian Voice that he first left the city in 2014, as the Islamic State advanced on Kobane, but returned in early 2015 once the group had been expelled.

He said he intended to contribute to rebuilding the city after 80 percent of its buildings were destroyed in the clashes that took place.

Destruction in Kobane after the Islamic State siege. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.

Emad worked with other civil society activists to document damage in the city and hoped to use the documentation to pursue funding from international organizations.

However, Emad chose to depart the city once again in mid-2016, leaving his project behind.

“I left because of the pressure and harassment that I faced when the Self-Administration imposed compulsory conscription on young men.”

Rebuilding efforts face obstacles

Fear of conscription is not the only factor pushing young men in Kobane to depart.

According to Shireen Othman, director of a youth association affiliated with the Self-Administration in Kobane, the migration is also related to economic and social circumstances in the city, which has struggled to rebuild after the Islamic State siege.

Among the obstacles that residents face are Turkish border closings that restrict access to essential construction supplies, price hikes across sectors, and limited access to medical supplies and electricity.

Freedom Square in central Kobane. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.

Amid such circumstances, those who fled Kobane, which had a population of some 300,000 people prior to the siege, have also been hesitant to return to their homes.

Izeddine, 28, is one of 50,000 people who have reportedly returned despite the challenges.

Although he has been unemployed for over a year now, he told the Syrian Voice that he is insistent on remaining.

Izeddine added that the situation in Kobane has made it particularly difficult to pursue his goal of “establishing important projects that would encourage [former residents] to return and to contribute to bringing life back to the city.”

“It hasn’t happened,” he said.

50,000 people have reportedly returned to Kobane. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Voice.

Mandatory conscription is not unique to Kurdish-held areas of Syria.

Under Syrian law, which applies in areas under the government’s control, all men age 18-42 must serve in the army.

The government’s conscription policy has similarly led many young men in those areas to flee the country or seek alternatives to serving. [See this Syrian Voice report on academic deferment rules.]

Original Arabic article found here.