SDF militia forcibly conscripting teachers in Syria: Report

The conscription of teachers is affecting the education of nearly half a million students in the governorates of Hasakah, Deir Az Zor and Raqqa.

Week in pictures
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, in October 2017 [File: Erik de Castro/Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – A continuing campaign to forcibly conscript people into the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has seen 61 teachers in northeast Syria detained and 550 arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs since the start of the year, a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) says.

The conscription of teachers is affecting the education of nearly half a million students in the governorates of Hasakah, Deir Az Zor and Raqqa, areas under control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), said the report.

Since the beginning of January, SNHR documented 34 teachers allegedly arrested to conscript them into the ranks of the Kurdish-led SDF militia, which the United States funded and armed in the fight against ISIL (ISIS) in northwestern Syria and played a crucial role in defeating the armed group.

Another 27 educators were arrested on charges of teaching the Syrian government’s curriculum. Fourteen were later released after signing a pledge to cease doing so.

The report further highlighted 550 teachers were dismissed from their jobs following their rejection of forced conscription.

A first-grade teacher at a government school in Deir Az Zor, who requested to be identified by his initials JA only for fear of being arrested, said he avoids going through SDF checkpoints.

“I really don’t want to [join the SDF] because ISIS threatens they will kill teachers, or all employees, if you join the military service,” JA told Al Jazeera by phone.

“Secondly, who will do my job and who will support my family? I have four children, who will take care of them in this unstable security situation?”

ISIL sleeper cells are still active in Syria, particularly in the area of Deir Az Zor.

JA missed the deadline to enrol in the SDF, which for him was December 22, resulting in the financial offices of AANES informing him his salary will be suspended as of next month, meaning he will be dismissed.

“We are threatened either to die of starvation or to be killed by ISIS,” he said.

The SNHR continuously uses the SDF as an umbrella term within the report, pointing to the military as being responsible for the arrests and dismissals.

But Kino Gabriel, an SDF spokesman, told Al Jazeera the Ministry of Education would be responsible for dismissals and the internal security forces, or Asayish, for any arrests.

“The SDF doesn’t have anything to do with those security situations or capturing people or dealing with the educational system or enforcing the rules or laws of the Democratic Organisation of North and East Syria,” Gabriel said.

The SNHR report detailed the teacher arrests were carried out without warrants, often without notifying the person of the charges against them.

It further outlined the security forces had not identified themselves when making the arrests, and likened the process to “kidnapping”.

Those detained were also not informed of where they were being taken or held, and were denied contact with lawyers or their families, the report said.

Asayish officials were not available to comment on the allegations.

A man from Bosnia and Herzegovina suspected of being an ISIL fighter is searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2019 [File: Bulent Kilic/AFP]

Gabriel rejected the report’s description of arresting people for conscription, instead saying people who have not registered for military service are often detained at checkpoints and directly taken to training camps.

“If you are not enlisting yourself as you should be, eventually you get caught and you serve three months more than the normal. Nothing else is done to them, they’re not arrested,” he said.

Mandatory ‘self-defence duty’

Military conscription was first introduced by the SDF in 2014 as a “self-defence duty”, though the law was amended several times – mainly relating to the length of service – until reaching its final form in June 2019.

Lists of names according to date of birth are distributed calling people up for conscription, and since the start of 2021, the lists included 550 teachers, the majority born in 1990.

Men in northeast Syria, according to the SDF’s self-defence duty, are required to perform military service from the age of 18, to be completed before they turn 40. The service entails 40 days of military training before being sent to an SDF centre or base particular to the individual’s skills for six months to one year.

For those detained for refusing to enlist in the SDF, their service lasts up to 15 months, and for men late to enlist they are forced to serve for an additional month. Military service in the SDF can only be deferred for students, people who have recently returned to Syria, and people with siblings younger than 18 years and a deceased or disabled father.

Exemptions are granted only on the basis of some medical reasons, disabilities, only sons and family members of those killed in action holding a certificate of proof.

This means 29-year-old JA does not qualify for an exemption, which he described as being “annoying”.

Gabriel from the SDF explained the deferral and exemption system in northeast Syria is no different from any other country in the Middle East.

“There is no such exception for teachers. Maybe religious leaders do not join the military service, but other people without any regards to occupation, they eventually take part in the military service,” Gabriel explained.

Education under AANES

SNHR’s chairman and founder, Fadel Abdul Ghany, told Al Jazeera the forced military conscription is a violation carried out by the SDF on the people of the region.

“When teachers become ‘wanted’ this has serious repercussions on the educational sector in northeastern Syria,” Ghany said.

JA, avoiding conscription in Deir Az Zor, said there are not enough teachers in the region.

“If [we’re] arrested, there will be schools or students without teachers, which means the education process is affected and the sequence of information the student receives is disrupted,” JA said.

The SDF says not all the teachers are taken together, and there is coordination between the Ministry of Defence and the education authority in order to continue the education process.

The education authority in AANES released a statement confirming the agreement between the defence office and the education authority.

“The names of the teachers required for the duty of self-defence are raised according to agreed percentages in order not to affect the educational process,” the statement said.

It added teachers are not dismissed, contrary to JA’s account, “for not joining the duty of self-defence”.

Not only does the SNHR report highlight half a million students affected by teachers being conscripted into the SDF, it further states educational materials required to be used in AANES schools are “distorted, incorrect and contrary to the history of Syria and its society”.

It claims changes to the existing Syrian government curriculum were done without consulting teachers and academics.

As the new curriculum was rolled out in northeast Syria, the SDF ordered the majority of teachers in the region to sign a pledge stating they will only teach from those materials. Those who failed to do so, according to SNHR, are arrested.

The AANES education authority stated, however, a specialised institution called the Curriculum Foundation prepared materials under the supervision of university professors from international universities and was developed in line with international standards.

Further to this, both the Syrian government curriculum and the AANES curriculum are taught in areas of the administration’s control.

“[The report] is hostile to AANES and its democratic project and strives to distort the image of the SDF, attribute negative actions to it, and challenge its credibility before international bodies,” the education authority said.

Source: Al Jazeera