Syrian regime complies with Arab demands by amending military recruitment policies

Military drills attended by Chief of the General Staff of the Army and Armed Forces, Major General Abdulkareem Mahmoud Ibrahim, in the Syrian Badia - July 20, 2023 (Syrian Defense Ministry)

Military drills attended by Chief of the General Staff of the Army and Armed Forces, Major General Abdulkareem Mahmoud Ibrahim, in the Syrian Badia - July 20, 2023 (Syrian Defense Ministry)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

The Syrian military institution has eroded due to its prolonged engagement in a war following the onset of the revolution in 2011, aimed at suppressing protests and confronting Syrian opposition factions, along with other groups that have taken Syrian lands as their battleground.

For over a year, the Syrian regime has consecutively issued several administrative decisions regarding compulsory and reserve military service and volunteerism, the latest of which was announced by the General Director of the General Administration at the Ministry of Defense of the Syrian government, Major General Ahmad Suleiman. During an interview with the Syrian Alikhbaria channel on June 26, the Defense Ministry of the regime announced a timeline for reserve service consisting of three phases.

A series of administrative circulars and decisions regarding reserve service opens the door to explore the effects these steps might have on the ranks of the Syrian army and the goals the Syrian regime might be working towards under the guise of announcements aimed at creating a “modern army.”

Three phases

The first phase of the plan announced by Major General Ahmad Suleiman begins on July 1st and extends until the end of the current year. Under this plan, those who have served six years will be discharged by the end of June, those who have served five and a half years by the end of August, and those who have served five years by the end of October.

By the end of the current year, those who have served four and a half years in reserve service will be discharged. This phase will be evaluated before proceeding to the next phase.

According to the plan, the second phase will start next year and aims to discharge those who have completed four years by the end of January 2025, and those with three and a half years by the end of February 2025.

By the end of June 2025, those who have served three years until the end of March 2025 will be discharged. Those with two and a half years by the end of April will be discharged on August 31, 2025. Those who have served two years by the end of May will be discharged by the end of October 2025.

Major General Ahmad Suleiman pointed out that the maximum period for reserve service will be two years during the third phase, following the evaluation of the second phase. He noted that the criteria for reserve service would be age and years of service.

He mentioned on Alikhbaria channel that tens of thousands of military personnel would be discharged by the end of this year, and similarly next year, while maintaining combat readiness. He indicated that the duration of reserve service in the three phases is subject to increase or decrease depending on enlistment rates.

Compliance with Arabs

Researcher in military affairs at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Rashid Hourani, said to Enab Baladi that the changes worked on by the Syrian regime are due to two reasons. First, they coincided mostly with the Arab rapprochement with the regime and demands from Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, for reforms related to security and military apparatuses and detainees. The regime tried to meet these demands through these decisions.

Hourani sees the second reason as Russian efforts from time to time to remodel the Syrian army after years of depletion, aligning it with the current situation and the agreements made with other regional and international parties involved in Syria, including Turkey and the US, which have led to a stalemate in the battlefronts.

The Arab initiative that gradually readmitted the Syrian regime into the Arab fold since early 2023 does not explicitly stipulate the restructuring of the regime’s military forces. However, it is possible, based on the general changes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad portrays through official media and the decisions, that they came as part of understandings with him or his allies.

According to what the Saudi magazine “Al-Majalla” published from the “Jordanian initiative,” its second phase pertains to the security and military dimensions. It includes the regime’s requirement to agree to steps such as a comprehensive ceasefire across all Syrian territories and halting all military operations related to the armed conflict, except for combat training exercises.

The initiative also stipulated declaring a freeze on military conscription for at least a year and reducing the number of security checkpoints in agreed-upon civilian areas. These provisions relate to removing military and security checkpoints from Syrian cities, which are obstacles to the return of normal life for Syrians.

Rebuilding manpower

On June 28, the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies published a study titled “Restructuring the Army in the New Syria,” providing figures about the manpower in the Syrian army. Before the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Syrian army’s manpower counted around 430,000; by 2021, it had fallen to 120,000, according to the study.

At the same time, the study estimated that the number of security apparatus personnel in Syria was about 150,000 in 2011 but dropped to 70,000 in 2021.

According to researcher Rashid Hourani, the issued decisions might bring some changes to the Syrian army based on the enlistment rates resulting from volunteer announcements. These could create a fluctuating cycle related to the Syrian regime’s human resources, subject to substantial instability due to the lack of centralization in the Syrian army.

Hourani attributed the lack of centralization to the emergence of volunteer calls made independently by some divisions, such as the Fourth Division of the Syrian army. Thus, the decisions and their outcomes are “insufficient to address the manpower shortage,” which will make the Syrian regime continue issuing such decisions to give the impression that it is working on changes and reforms within the military institution.

Since mid-last year, the Defense Ministry has repeatedly called on individuals to volunteer in its forces, offering “enticing” salaries not received by those working in the Syrian military sector, and specifying the length of military service, which is unusual.

The volunteer contract issued on November 21, 2023, named the “Combatant Contract,” includes two service durations: five years and ten years. The volunteer contracts for both durations include a salary of 1.3 million Syrian pounds with allowances (each US dollar equals 14,850 according to the S-P Today website specializing in monitoring gold and foreign currency prices).

According to the contract, there are rewards, including a service start bonus and an annual bonus, as well as a non-recoverable marriage grant worth two million pounds. Volunteers are exempt from compulsory service and have the choice to renew the contract or not.

According to Mohsen al-Mustafa, a researcher specializing in civil-military relations at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, the regime had started discharging many recruits from reserve service after years of service about three years ago.

Al-Mustafa told Enab Baladi that the regime’s plan began to take shape about a year ago by issuing administrative orders to discharge more recruits from reserve service. Additionally, the General Director of the General Administration in the Ministry of Defense, Major General Ahmad Suleiman, announced the move towards ending the reserve service and building a “professional army” based on volunteers.

Al-Mustafa pointed out that the current goal of the regime focuses on rebuilding the human resources needed for the army primarily from volunteers, intending to gradually reduce dependence on conscripts, whether through mandatory or reserve recruitment.

The researcher believes that this step came because the regime realized after the years of the Syrian revolution that those in mandatory conscription are not highly reliable due to the numerous defections and reluctance to join the service.

Changes in the concept of compulsory service

The General Director of the General Administration in the Defense Ministry of the Syrian regime, Major General Ahmad Suleiman, indicated that a five-year volunteer is called for one continuous or split year of reserve service and is exempted from compulsory service. For a ten-year volunteer, they are exempt from reserve service completely.

Major General Suleiman pointed out that there is a prepared study, and a legislative decree will be issued later regarding paying an exemption fee for those who reach 38 years old and have a certain service period, instead of 40 years.

He added that the same applies to compulsory service for those with disability cases (fixed services), allowing them to pay an exemption fee if they do not wish to serve. He highlighted that “the concept of compulsory service will change due to development and reliance on volunteers.”

The current decisions indicate two things according to military researcher Rashid Hourani. The first is the regime’s lack of confidence in the success of the announced plan, especially since the first phase will be evaluated for entry into the second phase, meaning the explanation remains in the hands of the Syrian regime. There is no decision to discharge entire military classes based on enlistment dates.

The second targets the reserve group who have advanced in age, indirectly telling them that if they do not meet the discharge conditions in terms of service duration, they can opt for paying an exemption fee.

According to Hourani’s analysis, the announcement of the intention to issue a legislative decree regarding the exemption fee and lowering the previously adopted age aims to increase this category and benefit the Syrian regime financially.

A study by the research center “Tawazun” found that the number of army fighters dropped by two-thirds after 2011. In 2012, Russian and Iranian military assistance prevented the collapse of the regime and its forces.

The center estimated the number of fighters in the army in 2020 to be around 169,000 and rated the Syrian army’s proficiency in military professionalism, governance, social and cultural perspective, civil qualifications, and defense sector economy as “low.”


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