By Eyad Muhammad Mudhar and Avery Edelman
AMMAN: The Syrian army’s general command announced in late March that not all students pursuing an advanced diploma in education will qualify for an academic deferment from mandatory conscription, provoking fear among students of all disciplines.
The general command’s decision, which was announced on March 26 in a circulation sent to the government’s army recruitment administration, calls for a cessation of deferments offered to students pursuing an advanced diploma in education who do not possess a “related” university degree. The decision also nullifies existing deferments that fall under the same categorization.
The announcement comes amid ongoing campaigns by the Syrian army to boost recruitment.
Military service is mandatory for all eligible men age 18-42 under Syrian law, which applies in areas under the Syrian government’s control. The Syrian army nonetheless suffers from what President Assad called “a shortfall in human capacity,” resulting from fatigue, desertions and heavy losses over the course of the conflict.
Many Syrian university graduates looking to avoid the draft extend their studies, seeking an academic deferment.
The country’s advanced diploma in education was a popular option among students who do not qualify for masters or doctoral programs, even before the conflict began. The diploma gives graduates priority for employment in the education sector and, more importantly given the current circumstances, qualifies students for a two-year military deferment.
The option to pursue the diploma in education will, however, now be limited to students who already hold degrees in subjects such as history, sociology and Arabic, which are considered “related” to the education field, according to a statement released last week by the president of the media branch at the Syrian ministry of defense, General Samer Suleiman.
General Suleiman clarified the reasoning behind the change, stating: “It is not logical for a university graduate with a specialization in medicine or engineering or any other field that is not related to education […] to register for an education diploma and request an academic deferment.”
Despite government clarification, rumors about the new rules have amplified student fears under an already-arbitrary recruitment system implemented by the Assad regime.
A 2015 report by the Danish Immigration Service found that in the wake of an “erosion of the rule of law” in regime-controlled territory, regulations on military service are difficult to interpret and many are unsure whether they are wanted by authorities.
The Syrian Voice spoke with Ibrahim Abo al-Jowd, an education student at Damascus University. Although he holds a degree in Arabic language and is therefore exempt from the change, he is nonetheless considering leaving the country illegally following the announcement, which he called “a strong blow” to Syrian students.
Abo al-Jowd initially registered for the education program hoping that it would qualify him for a military deferment, despite the high costs involved.
Awni Abdul Hadi, a fourth-year sociology student, says the decision plays into the interests of the army and those seeking to profit financially from illegal immigration. He added that leaving the country would be preferential to being drafted to fight with the regime’s forces.
The Syrian government unofficially targets university students for conscription, according to a study by the Institute for Study of War published in 2014. The report mentions that military checkpoint are set up near universities in an attempt to detain young men avoiding the draft.
The new rules, however, signify that the government’s efforts to increase recruitment are formally targeting students, according to Sami Numeira, a university student in Damascus. This has “caused alarm among Syrian youth,” he said.
Numeira added that the decision to serve is one of many that should be given to young Syrians themselves, but instead “falls into the hands of merciless authorities at government checkpoints.” He tries to avoid such checkpoints as much as possible.
According to a circular issued by the Syrian minister of defense, General Fahd Jassem al-Fareek, in mid-March, “there has been an increase in citizens falsely arrested for [avoiding] military reserve service, which has negatively impacted the reputation of the army and the armed forces.”
The circular requested that “relevant authorities in all regions do not arrest any person that has not been called for reserve service.”
Among the army’s other efforts to bolster recruitment was the establishment of a volunteer corps called the “Fifth Legion,” announced in an army statement last November. In the statement, the army called for volunteers to assist the government in “eliminating terrorism” and “returning security and stability” to the country.
The Fifth Legion recruits civilians not already drafted, army deserters and government workers. The legion offers a monthly salary and year-long contracts, an attractive option to Syrian youth facing high unemployment and poverty.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates that more than 60 percent of the labor force in Syria is unemployed.