Under guise of duty: patterns of coercion enabled by SDF’s draft law

Edited by Enab Baladi

Under guise of duty: patterns of coercion enabled by SDF’s draft law

Edited by Enab Baladi

Edited by Enab Baladi


Amal Rantisi | Ali Darwish

Ahmad Muhammad, 25, was forced to join ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) under the compulsory recruitment law, or duty of self-defense. In Raqqa city, such recruits end up in the facilities of the 17th Division—buildings of a former detachment of regime forces which retained their name under the SDF’s control.

Muhammad fled these buildings and sought refuge away from the city. Today he lives, almost in hiding, in one of Raqqa’s eastern suburban villages. There, even though he keeps a safe distance from the overwhelming presence of the SDF security services, he continues to battle with the fear that he might be coerced again into the military any time.

Muhammad told Enab Baladi that evading conscription was the right decision to make, despite the critical changes that befell his life after his flight. He is constantly concerned over his family, for the SDF security services might raid their home any moment in search of him.

Apparently, Muhammad’s military nightmare will not end any soon. The SDF draft law is clear and cutting. Under the 2014 conscription law, the SDF enforced the duty of self-defense on males between 18 and 30 years old. The law applies to all the SDF’s control territories, including most of al-Hasakah governorate and large areas in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor governorates, as well as the two cities of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) and Manbij in the eastern countryside of Aleppo governorate.

To ensure that target age groups will certainly perform said duty, the SDF has extensively deployed checkpoints across its territories. The scene bears an uncanny resemblance to former regime checkpoints, which also led youth to the ranks of different military divisions.

To feed their ranks with necessary manpower, the Internal Security Forces (Asayish)—an SDF affiliate— carry out raids in search of potential recruits. Barely any day passes without local news outlets reporting a series of youth and men arrests conducted by the SDF in northeastern Syria. The arrested ultimately end up in military outfits of the SDF, or any of its co-services.

The SDF is the military establishment of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, holding under its flag a plethora of military groups and security apparatuses, notably the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

In this extensive article, Enab Baladi addresses the economic implications of the SDF-led compulsory recruitment on young Syrian groups and delves into the psychological impact recruitment is having on male conscripts in particular.

Enab Baladi also sheds a light on the status of women and child volunteer conscripts under mandatory militarization, while demonstrating the contesting reactions to the conscription law.

SDF reaping benefits; conscripts losing dreams

Najm al-Rajab, 30, was an elementary school teacher, but he had to abandon classrooms and work on the family farm instead. Like Muhammad, al-Rajab was evading mandatory conscription. The SDF threatened him with ultimate dismissal from the school in the eastern countryside of Raqqa, unless he legalizes his status—namely unless he performs military service.

“The recruitment law is a grave injustice to young men, who go through hell to win their day’s bread and provide their families’ needs amid soaring prices and deteriorating economy in Syria,” al-Najm told Enab Baladi.

Al-Najm’s current farming job corresponds to a massive internal conflict, with opposite forces reaping through his life, his outlaw status and dream job as a teacher.

A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stationed in Ain Issa district, north of Raqqa – 10 July 2015 (AFP).

A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stationed in Ain Issa district, north of Raqqa – 10 July 2015 (AFP).

The People’s Protection Units (YPG) enforced the law of duty of self-defense in 2014 after the Dohuk Agreement. The law was passed in reaction to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its expanding control, which stretched over vast swathes in Syria and Iraq.

The initial law, however, was amended in 2018, providing certain margins of liberty. The amendments were advantageous to specific groups, students—granted the right to deferment, mothers with only male child— depending on the mother’s age— families of SDF dead fighters, siblings to Asayish and YPG fighters.

Nevertheless, it was not till 2019 that the law took its final shape. On 23 June, the Autonomous Administration passed a 35-article-law, which resembled, in content and structure, the Syrian regime’s draft law.


Deepening existing economic woes

Economic researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Muhammad al-Abdullah, told Enab Baladi that there are multiple dimensions to the economic consequences and effects of the SDF’s draft law.

One of these is the profits that the SDF aspires to access through enforcing the draft law. The SDF imposed the law chiefly to boost the number of its conscripts, which in turn will increase the US aid allotments because the US is one of the SDF’s major sources of funding.

The International Coalition, led by the US, sponsors the SDF as its major local partner in the fight against IS in Syria.

Reacher al-Abdullah added that optimizing the number of recruits, enlisted under compulsory draft orders, will cause a significant drop in SDF’s military expenditures. There are massive pay and intensive disparities within the SDF’s ranks because the wages dedicated to volunteer conscripts are extremely different from those allocated to forcibly recruited combatants.

He also pointed to corruption within the SDF’s military establishment, saying that there are active profiteering networks that make revenues from bribery and favoritism by manipulating the implementation of the law in areas of exemption, deferment, and task assignment.

On the other end of the law, lies a disadvantaged group that continues to be vulnerable to the economic constraints posed by draft terms and application. One primary implication is loss of livelihoods, for many candidate conscripts were forced to hide from security patrols sent to the streets with the express purpose of compelling them to join the fight.

The draft law was oblivious of targets’ familial financial duties and the job market decline. Therefore, the draft was one additional burden to the already strained population of the areas run by the Autonomous Administration. The population is attempting to survive against an acute economic downturn, observable through high rates of unemployment and poverty, as well as steep and successive increases in costs of living.

On 27 February, the population in Raqqa city was gripped by strong feelings of indignation. That day, the Self-Defense Office (SDO), operating under the Raqqa Civil Council, issued an oral circular providing for suspending February salaries of all employees who are on the compulsory enlistment lists.

The circular denied all employees born before 1990 access to their salaries unless they join the SDF ranks.

In March, an SDO staffer told Enab Baladi that employee salaries will not be cashed until they reach a “settlement” regarding conscription.

The SDF pays forcibly recruited fighters a monthly salary of 50,000 Syrian Pounds (SYP), amounting to 14.5 USD.

While it pays conscripts, who volunteer to perform the duty of self-defense, a monthly salary of 420,000 SYP, amounting to 121.7 USD—namely, nearly ninefold the salaries of forcibly recruited fighters.

Recruit pays come as strikingly meager compared to statistics on the economic situation in Syria. According to World By Map data, Syria ranks first among the world’s populations below poverty line, with 90 percent of Syrians struggling with these financial lows as WHO Representative in Syria Dr. Akjemal Magtymova stated in a previous briefing.

The World Bank also reported that the current poverty headcount ratio is at 1.90 USD a day, while forcibly recruited SDF fighters continue to live by an estimated 0.48 USD a day.

Escaping the country

Together, financial and military pressures have created several challenges to compulsory draft target groups. They are capable of neither paying the exemption fee set up by the law as 6000 USD, nor of evading it.

According to researcher al-Abdullah, these conditions made travel to Iraq or Turkey a prominent option for this population segment. However, the decision to travel will have an adverse impact on the economic life in these groups’ local communities, members of which are productive individuals and their families’ sole breadwinners. The immigration of these individuals will deepen poverty, exasperate patterns of financial deprivation within their communities, and hamper economic recovery in their towns and villages.

Sami Abdulrahim, 25, left Raqqa two years ago and moved to work and live in Istanbul, Turkey. Today, he maintains a job at a sewing workshop.

Abdulrahim told Enab Baladi that the SDF draft law coerced him to pay a 1000 USD to smugglers on the Syrian-Turkish borders and to abandon his mother, father and three younger brothers. Due to the law, he cannot even imagine a return to Raqqa because he fears the recruitment drives by the tireless SDF patrols and services.

Researcher al-Abdullah said that the SDF’s restrictions, arising from the military group’s insistence on applying the draft law, apparently aim at pressing remaining SDF opponents into immigration.

He added that the SDF is well aware that the majority of individuals refusing to join its ranks are actually refusing it as a ruling authority, not to mention the discriminatory and exclusionary policies the SDF has been deploying against the Arab population throughout its areas of administration, which it also applies to the military establishment. These policies have indeed caused many populations to partially evacuate their areas.

SDF draft center in Deir ez-Zor – 16 April 2019 (HAWAR News Agency)

SDF draft center in Deir ez-Zor – 16 April 2019 (HAWAR News Agency)

Forcefully enlisted recruits, volunteers, children

Recruitment’s psychological toll

The SDF’s various military formations do not only include volunteer conscripts and forcefully enlisted recruits. Women too are a major source of human power within the SDF military and security services. Joining women combatants into the military is one applied aspect of the Autonomous Administration’s—by extension the SDF’s— ruling ideology, enabled by the Charter of Social Contract which drives many of its essential articles from the governing principles of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Article 27 of the Charter, for instance, states that “[w]omen have the right to exercise political, social, economic, cultural and all areas of life.”

In addition to taking in women, there have been several reports documenting the SDF’s enlistment of under-age recruits.

While the Syria Democratic Council (SDC)—SDF’s political body—regards military service as a “social and ethical duty” towards the community, the SDF’s draft law has been facing a sweeping popular protest throughout the SDF areas of control since it was first imposed in late 2014.

Psychiatrist Ismail al-Zallq told Enab Baladi that compulsory recruitment is often a harsh experience that both recruits and their families go through, particularly when recruits are uncertain about the effort they are making or the matter they are being obliged to.  Lacking faith in this area tends to augment recruits’ and their families’ psychological distress

The extent that compulsory recruitment has on a recruit also relates to the region where the recruit is deployed. When recruits are sent to hotspots—confrontation lines, this might create additional psychological challenges to recruits and their relatives.

Recruiters might also live through traumatic experiences, which affect them, as well as give rise to anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Furthermore, fear for recruits’ lives can affect relatives, including parents and spouses, in many ways as they get to grabble with several psychological difficulties.

One other factor that poses psychological challenges to recruits is the military life itself. When recruits are denied access to needs such as food and a place to sleep, or when granted this access under difficult, harsh or abusive conditions, the psychological burden grows tremendously, especially if recruits are not convinced of the cause they are forced to fight for or adopt.

These factors combined can trigger various psychological effects. Forcefully enlisted recruits might suffer from insomnia and sleeping difficulties, as well as physical pain. Under extreme circumstances, they might even develop psychological disorders, involving anxiety or depression, or worse they might fall victims to psychosis.

Women, prey to social scrutiny

Psychiatrist al-Zallq added that enlistment of women has psychological and social implications. Having women in the military is alien to Syrian society. The unfamiliarity of the idea might transform how society members view female volunteers and cause the latter many struggles. Volunteer enlistment could lead to family rifts since most Syrian families do not approve of such endeavors.

The physical and psychological effects that women recruits might suffer vary and are deeply influenced by the societal and emotional pressure exacted by the community on the recruits’ families. Under extreme circumstances, traumas and psychological strain while serving with the military and security services, women recruits might suffer a range of psychophysical symptoms. These symptoms start physical, with recruits developing colon and muscle spasms, and eating disorders, as well as poor concentration and the inability to keep up with day-to-day tasks. The physical, then, spirals into psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

A fighter of the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) during the battles east of the Euphrates against the Islamic State (IS) - January 2019 (Dalil Sulaiman AFP)

A fighter of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) during the battles east of the Euphrates against the Islamic State (IS) – January 2019 (Dalil Sulaiman AFP)

Children, the hardest hit

Psychiatrist al-Zallq said that “children continue to be the hardest hit by recruitment.” Enlistment into the military affects children on two levels—child-society, as it impacts children’s behavior towards their community, and child him/herself.

Within these two levels, recruitment’s impact on children’s relationship with their society remains the most toilsome. When children are forcibly enlisted through kidnapping or other coercive means, they are deprived of the ability to make decisions. That is, they are robbed of the capability to tell risk from safety. Consequently, children can be easily tricked into fighting with little effort.

Recruitment’s influence on children might not be limited to childhood and the effects might not disappear at a certain age. The fighting experience might as well influence his or her adult life. Fighting might change children’s mentality about how people deal with each other and convince them that weapons are the way that all people use [to communicate]. This is likely to develop a greater tendency towards violence inside children, particularly those who lack knowledge and social support.

On a separate level, pertaining to children themselves, enlistment can be an extremely traumatizing and difficult experience, particularly because military work has its own dynamics and the tasks assigned to children might not be appropriate to their tender age. This adds to children’s psychological burden and leaves them with a trail of mental issues that might even turn chronic.

Life’s difficulties and traumas that children experience, in childhood or adolescence, can be a risk factor for developing a predisposition to a variety of disorders at youth, adulthood, and old age.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report covering child recruitment by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the core of the SDF military establishment.

According to the report, a number of children from the YPG-controlled camps for internally displaced people were encouraged to enlist. Furthermore, the YPG and its affiliate the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) had enlisted 224 children in 2017 alone, fivefold the number of children they have taken into their ranks in 2016.

The report, basing its figures on a UN report, added that 72 of the reported child recruits, nearly one-third, were girls. Moreover, “in at least three cases, the group [YPG] abducted children to enlist them.”

The rights group demanded that the YPG “immediately demobilize children in its ranks and stop recruiting children, including from families in displacement camps under their control.”

However, the YPG did not respond. In a November 2020 report, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented that since its establishment the SDF recruited at least 113 children, 29 of whom died in hostilities.

The SDF continues to recruit children into its ranks despite the 2014 Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment the SDF signed with the UN. By the deed, the SDF pledged to uphold international humanitarian law standards including not to recruit or use under-18 child soldiers.

In a September 2020 report, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) said that “despite this pledge, and the reported implementation of key aspects of the plan, accusations of YPG recruitment of children, both boys and girls as young as 11, persist.”

“The YPG’s actions are in violation of international law and may constitute a war crime. The United States and other members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS should utilize their political influence with the SDF to end the practice of child conscription.”

All recruitment practices, including forcible enlistment, for children under the age of 15 are prohibited by the international law, particularly 1977 Protocols I and II to the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, such recruitments are considered war crimes under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

SDF-sponsors evading questions

Enab Baladi sent an email to the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq), describing SDF recruitment practices aimed at children and asking about the coalition’s position of these recruitments and whether it has been taking any measures to prevent the use of children in hostilities.

The coalition’s answer, however, did not near the subject matter of the questions. The Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR) said “the Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces remain committed to the enduring defeat of Daesh remnants.”

“Daesh has been territorially defeated and no longer able to sustainably occupy any territory in Iraq and Syria. Daesh is resilient and remains a serious challenge, but relentless pressure by our SD partners prevent any chance of a reemergence.”

The CJTF added it will continue to support the SDF, “as they secure the enduring defeat of Daesh.”

Stages of recruitment

According to information obtained by Enab Baladi earlier from locals in SDF-held areas, the recruitment process is staged thus:

After they are captured or show up at relevant draft centers, recruits are transferred to a military hospital. There, they are subjected to medical checkups to ensure that they do not have any health-related issues that would hamper their military activities.

Once the health assessment is completed, recruits are transferred to one of three of the following military centers: Tell Beydar village in al-Haskah governorate, Gerziro in Rmelan town, or Ghabka village in Qamishli city.

SDF runs a 40-day military training program, which includes 4500 recruits each term. Once the training is finalized, recruits are granted a 5-day leave at home, before they are deployed to the numerous military posts and centers that the SDF operates across northeastern Syria. 

Recruits are relocated to target centers and assigned tasks based on a set of qualifications, including education, capabilities and distinct skills each recruit has. For instance, journalists are deployed to the SDF-affiliated media centers.

Distribution of recruits to centers and allocation of tasks are both affected by varying patterns of favoritism. For example, recruits prefer to be deployed to al-Qamishli, Amuda or al-Hasakah, but not to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. As for tasks, many recruits are aided to serve in administrative positions, with defined office house, while getting the chance to spend the rest of the day at home. 

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deployed in the al- Mashlab neighborhood in Raqqa city- 15 June 2017 (AFP)

Fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deployed in the al- Mashlab neighborhood in Raqqa city- 15 June 2017 (AFP)

Conscription in international laws

Head of the Syrian Legalists Committee and judge Khaled Shihab al-Din told Enab Baladi that the Autonomous Administration still lacks international recognition as a fully self-governing entity and is not a member of the UN. Consequently, Washington cannot recognize the right of the SDF and other Autonomous Administration parties to enforce their own draft laws, or promote for carried out enlistments as tolerable.

Judge Shihab al-Din elaborated on the relationship between international recognition and authorities’ abilities to enforce military service laws. He added that the current SDF draft law violates several international laws and conventions:

Only internationally recognized self-governing countries (States) can enforce compulsory military services as implied by the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Humanitarian International Law (HIL) includes various restrictions on compulsory recruitment, which function as a form of forced labor. Thus, the Autonomous Administration is not entitled to compel persons in the areas it controls to serve in its forces, while it should provide them with protection as long as they continue to reside within its territories.

According to the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, Article 51, the powers in charge “may not compel protected persons to serve in its armed or auxiliary forces.”

Under Article 8 (2) (a) (V) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, compelling protected persons within a control territory to compulsory service is considered a “war crime.”

Moreover, the American Convention on Human Rights of 1993 considers compulsory recruitment a violation of rights, personal liberty, inherent dignity, and freedom of mobility, considering collecting young men from the streets also an act of compulsory recruitment.

In the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Principle 13 (3) prohibits the compulsory recruitment of internally displaced persons. Banning “any cruel, inhuman degrading practices that compel compliance or punish non-compliance with recruitment.”

Local protests, are they of any use?

Since 2014, locals in the Autonomous Administration’s control areas have repeatedly taken to streets to protest compulsory recruitment, particularly since the larger portion of internally displaced young men have fled regime-held areas to evade military service.

In late 2020, protests reached a new peak in Deir ez-Zor, with the demonstrators projecting to a law that resembled the regime’s draft law on many levels that pertain to structure and recruitment methods.

In a 5 April report, SNHR said that the SDF’s partner donor countries must press the armed group to stop all violations across the areas and towns it controls.

In a new enlistment pattern, the SDF have been aiming compulsory recruitment drives at teachers. On 3 March, for instance, the SNHR documented the closure of two schools in the villages of Yarmouk and Mazraat Maysalun in the countryside of Raqqa in a statement against the forcible recruitment of teachers.

The SNHR also recorded that the SDF arrested and/or detained at least 61 teachers on charges relating to teaching the Syrian government curriculum, or for purposes of enlisting them with its forces.

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during a funeral procession of a fighter killed in Deir ez-Zor – April 2019 (AFP)

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during a funeral procession of a fighter killed in Deir ez-Zor – April 2019 (AFP)

No meaningful anti-recruitment actions

The Syrian writer and researcher Muhanad al-Kate’ said that SDF compulsory recruitment practices, particularly enlistments of Kurdish female minors, have become intolerable.

He added that these practices have been ongoing since 2013. They are not limited to individual cases but have grown into a worrisome phenomenon that caught the attention of the HRW and the UN since 2014.

In July 2014, the “de facto militias” pledged to demobilize children and return them to their families. However, the 2020 report of the United Nations Secretary-General verified that the SDF, among other armed groups, continue to recruit and use children in hostilities.

Al-Kate` said that there have been neither local, nor international, actions to address compulsory recruitment. These enlistments are particularly difficult to eliminate because the recruiting entity is adopting a policy aimed at young age groups, poor families, marginalized children, who are vulnerable to domestic violence. These conditions are all used against children who are exploited into joining the military, making the SDF’s future core manpower.

Al-Kate’ believes that the only foreseeable solution is that the US exacts serious pressure on the SDF, being the group’s chief source of military finance, to end compulsory recruitment and the use of children.

Legal groups taking the initiative

Judge Shihab al-Din told Enab Baladi that the Syrian Legalist Committee has sent relevant international actors an official letter demanding that they intervene to end the application of the SDF draft law because it constitutes a violation of human rights, as it compels the SDF-held areas’ different ethnic components into joining military activities carried out by involved forces.

He added that the draft law enforced by the Autonomous Administration amounts to a war crime, especially since compulsory recruitment laws continue to be a contested matter in States with acknowledged right to sovereignty and thus right to enforce such draft laws, which makes the issue further controversial in places overseen by internationally unrecognized governance systems, such as in northeastern Syria.

 Tribal refusal

Head of the Tayy Tribe, Nawaf Farhan, told Enab Baladi that “locals in the areas east of the Euphrates are all against the compulsory recruitment, notably tribes, their sheikhs and dignitaries,” because these recruitments do not have legal grounds and are incompatible with international conventions.

He added that the tribes have been expressing refusal of the draft law since it was first enforced. Lately, local dignitaries and tribe sheikhs have been increasingly demanding that the SDF annuls the law and stop haunting young men. These figures have also been stirring the locals to revoke the law and not to abide by it.

Al-Nayef said that the SDF will likely abolish the law should the tribes keep up that pressure, especially since the pretext of combating the IS no longar stands and the SDF and its commanders are facing vast pressure from all segments of the Syrian population and some regional actors to end compulsory recruitment.


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