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Syria denies mass conscription, says military remains strong

March 13, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the city of Aleppo.
A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the city… (J.M. Lopez / AFP/Getty Images )

BEIRUT -- The embattled Syrian government took the unusual step Wednesday 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 news service also dismissed suggestions that almost two years of fighting an internal rebellion had eroded the capabilities of Syria’s once imposing military, which has suffered heavy casualties and mass desertions.

The Syrian 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.

The government 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 imminent. The official outlet dismissed as “mere falsities” accounts of men being stopped at checkpoints and drafted into military service.

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

The city remains under government control, though opposition fighters based in outlying areas routinely shell the city and have occasionally managed to infiltrate car bombs into town, detonating the booby-trapped vehicles with heavy loss of civilian life.

In recent weeks, the military has fought off several rebel thrusts 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 loyalist of President Bashar Assad.

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.

The fatwa stunned many people and caused considerable buzz in social media because Assad’s ruling Baath Party -- and the Syrian military -- are  thoroughly secular institutions. Assad himself has repeatedly denounced Islamic extremists and Al Qaeda-linked militants as instigators of the uprising against his rule.

Many Syrians viewed it as an unprecedented step for a religious decree to call on people to "join the army and defend the homeland," as the clerical council urged.

Some saw the fatwa as an indication that the battered military was desperate for new recruits. 

Almost two years of war -- accompanied by heavy casualty numbers and large-scale desertions -- have certainly worn down the capabilities of Syria’s military, analysts say, though the extent of erosion remains unclear. The government long ago stopped providing details on service members killed in action.

But experts agree that there is no indication that Syria's armed forces are about to collapse. Regional defense units, pro-regime militias and civilian security forces have been incorporated into the nation’s security scheme, supplementing the military’s capabilities. The military -- with tanks, aircraft and ballistic missiles at its disposal -- also enjoys a major firepower advantage compared to its adversary.

All Syrian men must serve 18 months of mandatory military service, but many try to circumvent the requirement and thousands have fled Syria 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 fears that all men of fighting age would face compulsory conscription.

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

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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