* Thousands called up in past two months
* Some deserters feared they will "kill or be killed"
DAMASCUS, Sept 4 Syria is calling up former
soldiers from the reserves to active army service in growing
numbers, a sign of the strain of efforts to crush the
17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Several fleeing reservists and a serving army officer told
Reuters that thousands of men had been called up in the past two
months to bolster the 300,000 strong army, and many of them are
failing to report for duty.
"We have two choices: Stay and kill fellow Syrians, or
desert, and be on the run from military courts," said a legal
assistant summoned for duty in Damascus. Like others interviewed
for this article, he asked not to be identified for security
One army officer contacted in Homs said he believed that
only half of those called up in recent months had reported for
duty, although it was not possible to verify that figure or
ascertain whether other units had experienced similar levels of
reservists failing to report.
The officer said many units had suffered heavy losses
"There is a shortage of men. A lot of fighters have been
killed, and we have desertions," he said by telephone, sighing.
Most Syrian men are required to serve in the army for two
years when they turn 18 or after finishing university. After a
man has served, he remains in the reserves and can be called up
for active duty.
Syria's conflict has killed more than 20,000 people. Fleeing
reservists said that whatever their political stance, they did
not want to be part of the country's civil war.
The fighting has intensified in the past two months, with
rebels, often led by army defectors, launching advances in the
capital Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo despite being
massively outgunned by one of the region's best-equipped armies.
Syrian authorities, who say they are fighting foreign-backed
terrorists, have not given full details of military casualties.
One anti-Assad monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights, says nearly 6,000 soldiers and members of the
security forces have been killed.
The Homs officer said reservists had been called up for
several months but demand had risen in the past two months,
especially since the surge in fighting in Damascus and Aleppo.
"We have yet to need full army mobilisation. But if the
situation deteriorates in the coming months, we may need it. The
country is in a state of war and we need everyone's help."
Residents in Damascus say checkpoints across the city now
inspect young men's IDs to check they are not fleeing army
service or have not been called up from the reserves. Some
deserters dare not leave their homes, fearing neighbours who
might report them.
The legal assistant, who became a reservist after finishing
his required military service in Syria's special forces two
years ago, said he was stopped at a checkpoint in the capital
and taken to an army reserve centre outside Damascus for a
two-week training session.
He said he ran away from his training camp one night, and is
now in hiding.
Syrian law requires men who served in the military to get
army approval for passports, state jobs and even marriage
licenses, which makes it more difficult for reservists to avoid
Fadi, a former artillery specialist, said he was called by
the army for active duty and given 48 hours to prepare to leave
his coastal city of Tartous.
"I was terrified. I don't want my baby daughter to grow up
fatherless. My wife is crying non-stop. If I have to be on the
run for the rest of my life, I won't report for duty," he said.
A member of Assad's minority Alawite sect, Fadi, 30, is
trying to find a way to bribe a security officer to let him flee
Many Alawites like Fadi have stood by Assad, fearing
sectarian retribution from the Sunni Muslim majority leading the
revolt. "If my community found out what I was trying to do, they
would call me a traitor," he said. "No one would help me hide."
The army officer in Homs said men under 30 or men who had
recently completed their army service were being called up by
military headquarters first, as well as men who had specialised
in artillery or armoured vehicles units.
Even opponents of Assad have been called up. Tamouz, a
28-year-old playwright who was arrested earlier this year for
opposition activism, said he was called up for military service
last week and fled the next day.
"I did my service in the infantry," he said. "Nowadays, that
basically means: 'Go, die.'"
Syrian state television shows video loops of young soldiers
shooting their weapons and marching in training drills to the
sound of the national anthem, "Protectors of the Home."
The legal assistant said that before he escaped he had
trained with 200 conscripts from all around the country.
"The officer training us tried to raise our spirits, he
would smile and play patriotic songs. Some people seemed
excited, but most of us were scared and felt deflated."
Once neutral, he said he was forced to pick sides in the
conflict after his callup, and is now working with the
opposition. "Why should we spend our whole lives serving the