Assad’s exhausted army in need of reinforcements as Idlib battle looms
Regime is so desperate for new recruits that it quietly changed exam rules and has offered amnesty for draft dodgers
After seven long years, Bashar al-Assad has almost clinched victory in Syria. Just one province remains beyond his grasp, but as his Russian and Iranian allies step away from the last stages of the war they leave behind a Syrian army too weak to finish the job on its own.
The regime has said a ceasefire deal in the last opposition stronghold of Idlib is a temporary measure to avoid civilian deaths. But facing the prospect of a major battle without the help of Russian airpower and Iranian-backed ground militias – both appear reluctant to commit to the final battle – the stakes are higher for Syria’s depleted and demoralised army than they have been in years.
Casualties, desertions and draft dodging have taken a heavy toll. Unlike dozens of ceasefires violated by his forces in the past, Assad appears to need this one to work, at least until he is able to strengthen his depleted forces.
The regime is so desperate for new recruits that this summer, as the final battle for Idlib loomed, the state changed the rules for passing university exams without first telling students, in an effort to drag male students into the armed forces.
A female student in Damascus said that 70% of her year group of 300 failed their exams this summer, many of them on purpose, in order to delay military service. The usual amnesty period to resit the year was scrapped without notice, however, and now her male friends are at risk of being drafted.
Elie, 23, left Damascus for Beirut across the border in Lebanon after failing his second year of university and getting called up for military service last month. He could avoid it by paying an $8,000 (£6,000) fine but, like most Syrians at this point, his family does not have the money.
“It’s not much easier [here], but it’s better than wasting years of my life drenched in blood and killing,” he said. “My cousin has been in military service for the past five years, no end in sight. He got heavily wounded three times and lost over 50 friends. I cannot stomach what he can, so I can’t go back.”
Even with an influx of students plucked from university campuses, the chances that Assad’s ragtag army can retake Idlib swiftly without Tehran and Moscow’s help are remote.
The military ability of former students and conscripted ex-rebel fighters is untested and more experienced soldiers are exhausted. Some were drafted when the war began in 2011 and have been fighting non-stop ever since.
As the regime has steadily regained control of Syria, its troops are now stretched across both ex-opposition and ex-Isis territory. It is estimated only 20-25,000 soldiers will make up any force that attacks Idlib, where there are at least 70,000 assorted rebels.
“Idlib [would]be a tough fight for the regime. They are likely to incur heavy losses because they won’t put elite troops on that frontline,” a European diplomat said. “Iran also isn’t committed to the ground fight.”
Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah see much of their military role in the Syrian theatre as over now that Assad’s position is safe. All face significant domestic pressure to pull back from costly and bloody operations in Syria.
The regime’s weakness has given rebel factions in Idlib renewed confidence. “Idlib is the last place the revolution still lives,” said Mahmoud Abbi, a spokesperson for the Free Idlib police. “We have nowhere else to go. We are prepared to fight if the [ceasefire]deal breaks down.”
If Idlib’s hardline Islamist groups refuse to disarm and the ceasefire fails, a regime offensive is unlikely to feature the scorched earth tactics seen in Aleppo and Ghouta. Yet even mounting a campaign of attrition would require Assad to significantly boost his army’s ranks and morale first.
For years, state media and Syria’s political and religious establishment have demonised the hundreds of thousands of Syrian men who left the country to avoid conscription as even more treacherous than the rebels. In a surprise announcement this week, however, the government said all deserters and draft dodgers who returned to Syria in the next six months would be granted amnesty.
The decision is designed to entice families with the money to pay fines to return home, even if conscription remains a possibility. As the war nears its end, many homesick Syrians may be willing to take that chance.
Hadi, 25, an engineering student who came to Beirut from Latakia this autumn, said he did not think it was worth it. “If I stayed behind I would be serving now, without question,” he said. “It’s all a mess. No diplomas, no jobs, just recruitment and death.”
By Bethan McKernan