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Mobilization efforts on the rise in Syria's war of attrition.

Summary: Noura Hussein Hussein, an 18-year-old Syrian Kurd from the northwest town of Afrin, had just left the hairdresser's salon on her wedding day earlier this month but never made it home, according to her family.

BEIRUT: Noura Hussein Hussein, an 18-year-old Syrian Kurd from the northwest town of Afrin, had just left the hairdresser's salon on her wedding day earlier this month but never made it home, according to her family.

Hussein was detained by the Kurdish PYD, the political party that dominates the three Kurdish cantons in the north of the country, and was promptly conscripted into the YPG, the group's militia.

Her family has demanded the girl's release, and local activist groups say several other cases of forced conscription, sometimes of female minors, is on the rise in Afrin -- it's much more widespread in the easternmost canton, whose capital is the town of Qamishli.

Residents of the town of Amouda, in the Qamishli canton, have held periodic demonstrations against the PYD to demand the release of recently detained teenage girls and an end to the policy of conscription.

An anti-regime activist from Afrin told The Daily Star that Hussein's family rejected the PYD's explanation for the incident, namely that the girl had willingly joined the militia.

In both of the cantons, young Syrian Kurds are steadily fleeing the country to avoid military service.

"Afrin is basically empty of young people," the activist said. "They're going to either Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan," where a whopping 350,000 mostly Syrian Kurds have sought refuge from the war.

The party's critics in the Kurdish community fume that the PYD engages in regime-like practices, such as forcing people to fight in an unpopular war, while the conscription policy is compounding the misery by emptying Kurdish-majority areas of their civilian populations.

Meanwhile, the regime and the various rebel groups have their own manpower problems as the war grinds on.

The regime has spent much of the last year desperately rounding up fighters, whether for the regular army or paramilitary groups.

A Syrian observer familiar with the coastal provinces, home to many Alawites, described a population that is overwhelmingly trying to ensure that military-age males escape their service, either by going into hiding or emigrating.

"No one wants to go into the army," the observer said, requesting anonymity. "There's a small minority who might be enthusiastic about joining the National Defense [paramilitary] force. But nearly everyone else is trying to avoid the army -- some of these people might even be regime supporters, but the army pays nearly nothing and you're just going to end up getting killed for nothing."

The observer cited several instances of locals in Alawite villages banding together to prevent patrols from picking up conscription deserters.

A similar situation exists among the Druze of the province of Swaida, where tension has steadily risen over the authorities' attempts to round up young men who are avoiding military service.

Earlier this month, a group of young people in the town of Salkhad, some 30 kms south of the provincial capital, surrounded the local army recruitment office after a young man had been detained there to await conscription.

The young men burned tires and attacked the office, eventually freeing their friend, according to several anti-regime sources.

However, the army is not made up solely of non-Sunni minorities, as there is national conscription.

When rebel groups post video footage of captured regime soldiers, they are often asked to identify themselves and their hometown, and sometimes sect.

And Sunnis, some from the cities of Aleppo or Damascus, regularly show up as prisoners.

The complexity of the war in Syria means that precise estimates about the manpower levels of the various warring sides, and the populations they can draw on, are difficult to make.

The Kurdish YPG in the northeast region of Hassakeh, for example, has Arab tribal fighters in its ranks.

Also, the regime's own "Shiite militias," ostensibly Iraqi- or Iranian-commanded and financed, have recruited urban, Syrian Sunnis into their ranks, probably due to the overriding need for manpower.

For Jeffrey White, a Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "the war between the regime and the rebels of all stripes has devolved into a war of attrition, and in a war of attrition the side that can best mobilize its resources will likely win."

White cited several advantages for the regime: its existing organization and conscription and training procedures; its activation of a range of Syrian paramilitary groups; and having allies willing to provide manpower, namely Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi Shiites.

"But as the war has dragged on and casualties mounted, this has become harder, and that is why we see the regime resorting to more strenuous and extreme measures to find manpower," White said.

The rebel groups, meanwhile, range from the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army to the many conservative, Islamist militias to the hard-line Salafists and jihadis of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front and ISIS.

A fighter from a mainstream rebel militia in southern Deraa province told The Daily Star that in recent months, the manpower status of various groups has been fluid.

"There are fighters who defect from the FSA and join the hard-liners," he said. "But there are also cases when Nusra Front [Syrian] fighters defect and join FSA-aligned groups, because they end up becoming suspicious of what Nusra is up to, and their priority is to fight the regime."

He said the FSA militias continue to be hampered by the low salaries that they pay, meaning their fighters regularly face the temptation to join the better-financed Islamists.

For White, the regime faces the "fundamental problem that it is a minority regime with minority allies, whose willingness to keep paying the 'butcher's bill' is uncertain."

In contrast, he continued, the rebels don't appear to suffer from potential recruits -- "their problem is mobilizing the potential manpower. There is no overall system for this, so it's up to the various factions to recruit, train and equip, and this is uneven. The better resourced and more successful Islamist groups seem to do better at this."

"This dynamic -- between the regime's better mobilization capabilities and the rebels' greater manpower resources -- is one of key factors in the war and will contribute to, if not determine, its outcome.

"Other factors, such as outside involvement, are important, but mobilization is central."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jan 30, 2015
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