Liberal backbencher Bob Baldwin declared in Parliament on Monday night that if the “Daesh death cult” were invading his country he would stay and fight and would expect his sons to do the same. “Why are they not staying and training to defend their land, their lifestyle and their rights?” Baldwin said. He also commented it was “a bit rich” to expect soldiers from other countries to fight Islamic State in Syria if young male refugees weren’t willing to stay and fight themselves. But who and what would Baldwin fight for?

None of the choices facing young Syrian men in this brutal and messy war are simple. If Syrian men stayed to fight for the Assad regime, they would be fighting for a brutal regime whose killing of civilians far outpaces the likes of IS.

Many have taken up arms to fight for the Free Syrian Army, which, at the outset of the war, was considered a grassroots people’s movement. Now, however, the FSA has splintered, and jihadi groups have taken hold of many of their previous strongholds.

A secular rebel group that promises a free and democratic society in Syria, after IS and Assad are defeated, doesn’t exist.

Compulsory conscription into Assad’s army is one of the main reasons young Syrian men flee the country. That is why, as Baldwin observed, so many of the refugees asking for help in the West are young, single men, who reluctantly leave their families behind.

Adnan, whose name has been changed, left Syria five months ago after an officer from Assad’s military knocked on his door in Damascus to tell him he’d been conscripted. Adnan told Crikey he had four choices: “To kill, or to be killed, or to get out of your country, or to go to [the] torture chamber.” Adnan said government forces would take any men between the ages of 17 and 42 from the street. This forced many men to stay at home and give up work.

The Syrian Arab Army went from a pre-war 325,000 soldiers to an estimated 150,000 battle-weary troops, according to a paper written last December by Christopher Kozak at the Washington-based think tank the Institute of the Study of War. So in an attempt to boost Assad’s dwindling forces, the regime has cracked down on reservists, conscription and incentive schemes. Kozak’s paper outlines Assad’s tactics, including prohibiting men born between 1985 and 1991 from leaving the country for any reason.

While military service is technically compulsory for men aged between 18 and 40, Kozak found a staggering number avoided it altogether. And thousands of men have now gone into hiding, fled to rebel-held areas of Syria or used smuggling networks to escape the country.

In October 2014 the Assad regime conducted large-scale reserve activations, with activists reporting thousands of men detained in the cities of Homs, Hama and Deir ez-Zor. The regime has also deployed economic incentives for volunteer militias, providing a monthly salary, a security card that exempts them from active military service and an opportunity to remain in their hometown.

Kozak told the International Business Times: “Reservists are almost always sent to the front lines, and new conscripts are thrown into battle with barely any training.” When Adnan was asked if he had considered joining either Assad’s forces or a rebel group he replied: “I cannot carry a weapon and kill anyone.”

How long would Baldwin last on the front line with no combat experience or training? How long would his children? As his website recounts, when his parents left post-war England and migrated to Australia, they said: “It’s all about the children and their future.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey