Tuesday 20 February 2018

Assad conscripts men aged 50 to prop up struggling army

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks to French journalists in Damascus, Syria, in a photo provided by the Sana agency. Photo: Reuters
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks to French journalists in Damascus, Syria, in a photo provided by the Sana agency. Photo: Reuters

Josie Ensor Beirut

Karim Habib never imagined he would join the millions of refugees fleeing his country, but on Monday he got a call he had long been dreading.

When a friend in the Syrian army informed him that he would soon be called up for military service, the 48-year-old oil worker decided to pack his bags and head for the border.

"I did not think they would come for me," he said from a relative's house in Beirut.

"But they are recruiting more men now than at any other time during the war. The age limit is supposed to be 42, but now even those in their fifties and those with health problems are having to fight."

Fresh from victory in Aleppo, President Assad's regime may appear stronger than ever, but its army is struggling. The 300,000-strong pre-war force has been halved by deaths and defections.

"There are no longer any men from 18-50 on the streets any more," Mr Habib - a pseudonym to protect his family - said. "Those who try to avoid the call are imprisoned and tortured, so I felt I had no option but to leave."

Mr Habib had a good job as a manager at an oil company in the capital. For now, he waits in Lebanon for his wife and three young children to be granted visas for Germany, where he holds citizenship and hopes to start a new life.

But many others in Mr Habib's position did not have the option of fleeing. Under the cover of the regime's offensive on Aleppo, thousands of civilians were forcibly conscripted. The UN has said as many as 6,000 Syrian military-aged men are missing after heading from east Aleppo into government-controlled areas.

"The regime has a serious manpower problem, which has so far been compensated by tens of thousands of foreign fighters and loyalist militias along with the Russian air force and Iranian advisers," Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East said. "How it will control the territory it captures if the foreigners get bored and leave is an important question."

Mr Assad has pledged to retake the whole country, but it is likely a promise he cannot keep. The opposing powers brokering peace talks later this month in Kazakhstan look set to carve Syria up into different zones of influence.

Mr Assad would keep Aleppo but will be sure to lose much of northern Syria, where Turkey has stationed troops to create a "buffer zone" along the border.

It may be some time before Mr Habib is able to return.

"All I know is that I cannot serve for this brutal regime which has destroyed the country," he says. "There can be no peace under Assad." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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