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Syria denies reports of mass conscription

The latest rumors fueled fears all men 50 and younger could be drafted to help the government battle a rebellion that has taken a heavy toll on the military.

March 13, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A Syrian army soldier takes part in an operation in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital. In recent weeks, the military has fought off several rebel efforts to storm the capital.
A Syrian army soldier takes part in an operation in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus,… (Syrian Arab News Agency )

BEIRUT — Moving to quash rumors of mass conscription, the embattled Syrian government said Wednesday that the armed forces remained strong and insisted that there were no plans to sweep up all military-age men into the army.

The military is at its "highest levels of readiness and capability, and [is] … well prepared to repel and confront terrorists," declared the official Syrian Arab News Agency, which routinely describes armed rebels as terrorists.

Syrian authorities took the unusual step of denying reports that young men were being grabbed at checkpoints and drafted into the army as part of a new general call for military conscription. The official press agency quoted a "media source" as saying there was "absolutely no truth in news by some media outlets" that an all-hands order for conscription was underway or imminent.

The formal denial came as rumors of a conscription campaign were swirling in Damascus, where security is extremely tight and numerous checkpoints have been set up to keep armed rebels out of the capital.

Syria's once-formidable military is known to have suffered heavy casualties and large-scale defections since the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad erupted two years ago.

All Syrian men are required to serve 18 months of military service, but many try to circumvent the requirement, sometimes by going into hiding. Thousands have fled the country rather than be drafted and face being sent to the front lines of what has become all-out war between government forces and rebels.

The latest rumors fueled fear that all men of fighting age would face conscription, including those who had long ago completed their military service. Some worried that all men 50 and younger could be drafted.

Mona, who has three sons in their 20s, "became instantly bedridden" when she heard the reports, recalled her eldest son. "Her blood pressure went through the roof," he said. "I was so worried about her."

He debated whether to leave the house and risk getting picked up at a checkpoint.

"I don't know if I should go to work tomorrow," said the son, who, like others interviewed, asked not to be named for security reasons. "Are they drafting guys from checkpoints? I just don't know."

All three sons mildly support the government, but none have any intention of signing up for the war. "Even if I'm pro-Assad," said another son, "I don't want to die for him."

The rumors of new large-scale conscription also worried government opponents.

"Exactly who will I go fight if I'm conscripted? My own brothers the rebels?" asked a 41-year-old Damascus resident. "If Assad is crazy enough to force me to carry arms, I will shoot him myself."

Damascus remains under government control, though opposition fighters based in outlying areas routinely shell the capital and have managed to carry out car bombings there, detonating the booby-trapped vehicles and causing heavy civilian losses.

In recent weeks, the military has fought off several rebel efforts to storm the capital from opposition-controlled areas to the northeast.

Talk of mass conscription began to circulate in Damascus on Sunday, when the nation's top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, seemed to call publicly for a general mobilization. The state-appointed mufti is a staunch Assad loyalist.

The nation's leading religious council issued a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring that military service was a "national faith duty" and denouncing as "treason" any opposition to the Syrian army.

Almost two years of war, accompanied by heavy casualty numbers and large-scale desertions, have worn down the capabilities of Syria's military, analysts say, though the extent of erosion remains unclear. Thousands of troops have been killed, but the government long ago stopped providing details on casualties. Many elite forces reportedly have been withdrawn from other regions for the defense of Damascus.

The Syrian conflict has left as many as 70,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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