TRIPOLI, Lebanon—In late March, the Assad regime released a propaganda video aimed at the young men of Syria. In the video, titled “Braids of Fire,” Asma al-Assad, the wife of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, stands before a squad of female army volunteers dressed in camouflage and army boots. “You are far stronger and more courageous than many men because when the going got tough, you were on the front lines, and they were the ones running away or hiding,” she declares. Her words are intercut with images of the women volunteers in combat training, as well as testimonials from the women and their mothers. The underlying message: Shame on you men for fleeing military service—a “sacred duty” enumerated in Syria’s constitution.
When protests against the Assad regime began in 2011, the Syrian army numbered about 250,000. But tens of thousands of defections, desertions, and mass casualties over more than seven years of conflict have gutted the military. While its current size is unknown, one thing is clear: Assad is now going to great lengths to reconstitute his forces. The problem is that few Syrians want to fight for him.
The week that the Assad regime released “Braids of Fire,” I met a Christian man in his 40s from Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, at a cafe in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli. Assad and many in his regime’s inner circle are Alawite, a religious minority linked to Shia Islam. Christians are also a minority in Syria; many of them regard Assad as their protector from a rebellion led mostly by Sunni Muslims. Yet, despite that perceived partiality to the regime, several months ago the man from Aleppo whisked his 22-year-old son out of Syria. He was desperate to save him from conscription: Under Syrian law, it is compulsory for Syrian men between the ages of 18 to 42 to serve in the military. Those who evade service face imprisonment and forcible conscription. Since 2011, most conscripts have been kept in the army indefinitely. (Some exemptions for work or study are available.) Army service for women, meanwhile, remains voluntary.