SANA via EPA
A Syrian government soldier aims his machine gun during an operation in Aleppo on March 6. Rumors that Bashar Assad's government will instate a military draft have caused panic in the war-ravaged country. Editor's note: Image supplied by Syrian state news agency SANA.
DAMASCUS, Syria -- When a government-linked Islamic body in Syria said this week it was a "sacred duty" to join the army and fight the revolt, Damascus was ablaze with rumors of a mass military draft.
Men of military age panicked, worrying they would be given a gun and told to fight never-ending street battles with rebel fighters before being returned to their families in a wooden box, like thousands of soldiers over the past two years.
President Bashar Assad's forces are stretched thin across the country as the opposition takes further ground, overrunning military bases and executing prisoners. Fleeing reservists say morale is low among troops, who are virtually imprisoned in their barracks by officers who fear they'll defect or flee.
Mohammed, a 30-year-old who supports Assad, said he would rather flee the country than fight the rebels.
A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.
"So what exactly would I be doing if I got drafted? Killing rebels? They'll kill me back," he said, asking to withhold his second name for fear of retribution.
"I'd be dead no matter what, like a lamb to the slaughter," said Mohammed, who completed his two-year mandatory military service years ago. "Yeah, sure I support the regime, but this isn't my fight."
The official news agency SANA denied the authorities were planning to organize a draft.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London said on Thursday the Syrian army's strength has roughly halved to around 110,000 men because of defections, desertions and battlefield losses.
Friday is the two-year anniversary of the uprising, and Damascus residents are bracing for a big rebel push. Some parents decided to keep their children at home on Thursday. Earlier in the week there was an exodus of families leaving the city.
'Rewarded by God'
The draft rumor spread this week after Syria's highest official Sunni Muslim body issued a religious decree on Sunday calling on Syrians to join the military, which it called both "a national and a sacred duty."
Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, a staunch supporter of Assad who lost his son in a rebel ambush in October 2011, called on parents to push their children "toward this duty, and do not worry, for they will not be killed, only rewarded by God."
Damascenes have been exchanging tales of young men snatched at checkpoints from the streets and taken into military service.
Syria requires mandatory military service of up to two years for men aged 18. But there are many exemptions, including a temporary delay if the man is enrolled in college, and a permanent exemption if he is the only son in the family.
Some families hide their military-aged sons at home, while some of the well-to-do have sent their sons abroad. There is talk of male college seniors purposely failing courses to remain enrolled and exempt from military service.
Some anti-Assad Damascenes said a draft would push them to join the rebels.
"Bring it on. If Assad wants to entrust me with a gun, I'll kill his troops on my first day," said one man in his forties.
"I can't tell you how many men there are, much younger than I, who are just waiting for the slightest excuse to pick up arms and join the rebels. Assad can't be so stupid as to arm men who want to see him dead."