By Hussein al-Khattab and Justin Clark
AMMAN: When the Syrian army and its allies reached Aleppo’s central a-Shaar district last week, rebel fighter Yazan al-Halabi was positioned on the neighborhood’s frontlines.
After a-Shaar’s rebels temporarily stalled the regime offensive, Yazan and other fighters took advantage of a lull in the fighting to retrieve the dead bodies of several killed regime soldiers, a common tactic given that the corpses can be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
“When we started to move their bodies, we recognized some of them. They used to live in east Aleppo,” Yazan told the Syrian Voice earlier this week.
Yazan and other rebel fighters who spoke with the Syrian Voice believe the men were forced to fight with the regime after fleeing to the relative safety of government-controlled west Aleppo.
The Syrian government and its allies—which include Russia and Iranian-backed Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan militias—have since pushed the rebels out of a-Shaar and other nearby neighborhoods.
At the time of writing, east Aleppo’s remaining rebels and tens of thousands of civilians are awaiting evacuation from the last opposition-controlled neighborhoods of the city—a 2.6-square-kilometer pocket west of the Fawik River.
Those who have not already fled the rebel-controlled east say that fears of bombing and sniper fire near the active frontlines leading to west Aleppo discouraged them from attempting the crossing.
But many military-age men also say they have not left out of a fear of forced conscription.
“Death inside the siege is better than seeing any of my sons fighting with the regime,” Abu Khaled, a father of three, told the Syrian Voice via a social media messaging application.
“We don’t want to end our long struggle by killing our brothers.”
Rebel leaders in east Aleppo claim that any military-age male who flees to west Aleppo faces immediate and forceful conscription.
Abdel Munam Zein a-Din, the general coordinator between opposition factions in Aleppo, told the Syrian voice that fleeing military-age males are “stopped at the first checkpoint” when they arrived in regime-held territory.
Males between the ages of 19 to 40 are then transferred by Syrian Arab Army (SAA) officers to military training camps, Zein a-Din told the Syrian Voice.
Opposition activist Mumtaz Abu Muhammad says that regime officials threaten fleeing men from east Aleppo with prison or execution if they do not join forces with the government forces quickly overrunning the besieged enclave.
“Those who leave for regime areas have two choices: Fighting with the regime, or being charged with terrorism and executed,” the activist told the Syrian Voice.
Pro-regime media outlets have not reported on the claims of forced conscription.
However, a pro-regime journalist based in west Aleppo told the Syrian Voice that men from east Aleppo are fighting with the Syrian regime, including both volunteers and those who have not completed mandatory military service.
“There are a large number of [men who fled East Aleppo] fighting with the Syrian Army now,” said al-Mayadeen correspondent Rida al-Basha.
“Those who haven’t completed their military service yet have been transferred to camps by army personnel to learn how to hold a gun and fight.”