The option to remain a student is one of the most common ways that young, military-aged men living in regime-held parts of Syria avoid mandatory military service. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, or how well they score in exams—enrolling somewhere, for some degree, allows them to postpone being sent to the frontlines.
Two-year military service is required of all Syrian men aged 18-42. Exemptions for family circumstances or illness excuse some, while deferments for university students are also available.
Upon graduation, however, men are eligible to be called up. And so, countless students deliberately fail classes to avoid graduation, or sign up for post-graduate certificates and degrees.
But last month, the Syrian Arab Army’s General Directorate of Conscription issued a decision narrowing the criteria for male university students to defer military service.
Specifically, the decision covers men studying for a one-year post-graduate teaching diploma whose original undergraduate studies were unrelated.
“It is not logical for a university graduate with a specialization in medicine or engineering…to register for an education diploma and request an academic deferment,” Syrian Ministry of Defense spokesman General Samer Suleiman said last month.
The Faculty of Architecture at Damascus University in October 2014. Photo courtesy of Damascus University Students’ Lens.
Students affected by the decision will have their academic deferments cancelled after finishing their exams in November.
Eyad Murad is one of the students who will have his deferment cancelled later this year. He is a 26-year-old living in Damascus who graduated from college with a degree in information engineering and computer program in 2015.
After his graduation, Murad, who asked not to be referred to by his real name, says he enrolled in the College of Education at Damascus University to study for an advanced diploma in education and to avoid conscription.
“Military service during the war is endless,” Murad tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier. “It means death.”
Q: As a non-specialist studying for an advanced degree, you are directly impacted by this decision. Could you describe how and why you began your graduate work, and how this decision will affect you?
After I graduated from the College of Information Engineering in 2015, I registered for a post-graduate teaching diploma through the College of Education. It is a non-specialized diploma, and does not have any use from an academic perspective. It is only a one-year course, but I did it to avoid being called up for mandatory military service. It gave me a year-long service deferment, and the chance to defer for a second year if I failed the first.
I did this to avoid conscription. Studying for the diploma was a legal and easy way to get an educational deferment and delay military service.
According to the latest decision, all those [like me] with deferments [through the education diploma] who have non-specialized degrees are eligible for conscription from November 21 of this year. Those covered by the decision are not permitted to leave Syria.
This decision was a big shock for me and many of my classmates. There are few alternatives available to avoid going to the military. This could ruin my whole life.
Q: What other options did you have to avoid service, besides registering for the education diploma?
As engineering students, what we could do to postpone or avoid military service was intentionally fail a course in the last year of studies so we couldn’t graduate. That way, we could get a legal deferment.
The other solution was to register for the diploma that I did. After the latest decision, the only option is to apply for a master’s degree. The chance of getting into a program is slim, though, because there are hundreds of applicants and the requirements are strict. Out of hundreds of students, only 12 are accepted in the end.
For me, the options now are to either hide from sight and not leave my house, or pay a bribe to an officer to get a deferment paper to avoid being sent to service for one year.
I’ve chosen the bribe. I’ll pay an officer SP400,000 [approx. $1,866] for a deferment. The bribe is eight months of my salary.
[Ed.: Eyad heard from a friend about a high-ranking officer in the Damascus recruitment division who takes bribes. He plans to borrow the money from a relative outside Syria, and then pay it back in installments.]
Q: How do you feel about your choice to pay this amount of money to avoid service?
I feel stupid. I studied, graduated, and am living with a lack of security, high prices, fear and pressures just so I can pay a bribe to allow me to stay alive. And beyond avoiding the military, who knows if I will be safe from bombings or arrest?
If I survive this year, will I survive the next one? Or pay another bribe? It’s all unknown, just like our lives are in wartime, unfortunately.
Q: What is preventing you from voluntarily completing your military service? And since you know it is required, why not leave the country?
I am not against the service in principle, because this is my duty towards the nation. But military service during the war is endless. It means death. When I go to the army, I’ll be wiped out in a war that I don’t believe in.
Since the beginning of the revolution, I chose to finish my studies in the hope that it would be over before I graduated. I didn’t know that the war would last.
As for leaving Syria, I can’t emigrate. No country will take us as Syrians. Leaving legally has become impossible, and I can’t risk being smuggled out for fear of the [danger] of the road.