When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, not only were civilians angry, but it also angered a broad class of military officers, especially in the low ranks, who thought -mistakenly- that the security might will not rule anymore and that civil rule will start in Syria. This idea started within the military and security officers after Hafez al-Assad paved the path for his son by putting aside his life-long comrades and partners and friends and replaced them with new faces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The following story is an example that my generation lived when Bashar al-Assad came to power.
The military training was a mandatory curriculum for males in the state universities in Syria. There is no way for graduation without completing it or completing the mandatory service, only then, the university administration will drop the class from the curriculum.
This military training was under the supervision of a department in the Syrian army called the University Military Training Administration. Its headquarters is located in the city of Damascus Kafr Souseh neighborhood. This HQ shares a wall with the College of Arts and Social Sciences which shares another wall with a military security branch called District Branch, or security branch number 227.
Three locations for military training camps were designed for Damascus University. One is in the desert of AL-Dumayr next to the military airport. And one inside al-Mazeh military airbase. While the third one is the al-Dimas camp or the five-stars camp as we used to call it. The al-Dimas training camp occupies a sizable area near one of the fanciest neighborhoods in rural Damascus. All the corrupt political, security, and military class built their fancy palaces and villas in the al-Dimas neighborhood.
The military training extended throughout the school year, and it was called winter training, which is one day per week as far as I remember. We, as college students, had to wear a military uniform of a light beige color more like a sandy yellow, to distinguish us from the army soldiers who wore a darker uniform. Later, the winter training was canceled, and the summer training was preserved. This change took place when Bashar al-Assad became the president succeeding his father. The cancelation was a part of his policy that he called: The policy of Development and Modernization, In Arabic [al- Tatweer wa al-Tahdeeth].
Of course, we did not undergo any military training on any weapons in the camp’s ten or eleven days. Running in the morning behind an officer is the only physical activity we did. Followed by the daily news delivered by a student on the camp radio, which talks about the Israeli alert on the Syrian border, the news about the resistance, Palestine, imperialism, colonialism, followed by Fayrouz’s revolutionary songs.
The camp leadership divides the students into battalions, each one is led by an officer in the army. And then each battalion gets divided into brigades. Each brigade is led by a student, who should be a Ba’athist and close to the Students’ Union. Then, each brigade gets divided to groups, each group does not exceed eight students. Every day, the battalion leadership chooses a group to play the role of food servants. The group has to ride an old military truck called Tatra to transport the food from the kitchen to the restaurant. Riding the Tatra was an adventure, as the truck’s limbs were loose and could not be leaned against, so the danger of falling was always there while the driver used to drive irresponsibly, speeding and making quick turns as if he is in a video game. One of my friends once fell and lost consciousness for a full day before the doctor released him to his home for medical reasons.
The breakfast is Hummus, or halava and jam, while the lunch is bulgur and chickpeas, or rice cooked in a very large bowl full of soot we call it kasa’a. The tea was boiled in another bowl, or sometimes in the same bowl that was used for cooking. Once and a maximum of twice, we ate grilled chicken. We joked about the size of the chicken and said that the chicken lost its weight when it jogged from Damascus to al-Dumayr before cooking it. It was significantly small, and every four students shared one. We used to refer to them as chicks.
Of course, there are classes such as military tactics, in which an officer used to emphasize that the tactic in battle is steadfastness. The theory states, according to him that: “You run after the enemy, and then the enemy runs away” he continues, asking: My son, why does the enemy flee? Silence prevails, then he answers his question, saying: “Because he is an enemy, my son”.
Military, al-Ba’ath party, and National Progressive Front leaders visited the training camps. They gave speeches insisting and affirming the historical, political, and military importance and the earthquake that shook the throne of Israel. I quote what was said:
“Sons, Israel is trembling now because of you. Your military uniform has terrified Zionist reconnaissance aircraft. Before I head out to you from the party headquarters in Damascus, the enemy’s media reported that Damascus announced the general warfare and that the enemy reconnaissance forces had spotted thousands of soldiers in military uniform heading out of the city“.
In one of these visits, while one of the Ba’ath party comrades was giving a speech, one of my friends laughed in a relatively loud voice that an officer standing behind him heard. The officer grabbed my friend’s shirt collar, dragged him to the ground, then started beating him with a brutality that I had never seen before. The officers stepped in to save my friend, and the place fell silent, to the point that the comrade who was delivering his sermon stopped speaking and stepped off the stage.
The Ba’ath party visitors and the students’ union leadership were terrified by the officer’s brutality and called the camp leader to hold the officer accountable and to open an investigation.
We were all surprised that the military camp leadership investigated the officer and concluded that he did wrong. However, the administration did not take any actions to punish him.
The army officers were greatly disappointed by the investigation, as some officers saw it as an insult to the military rank and undermined its prestige. They were angry to the extent that a colonel from Daraa governorate, drank a whole bottle of alcohol by himself called Arak Al-Rayyan. At midnight he was wasted and very close to killing a poor soldier who was in his mandatory service.
I ran with a few friends to the battalion leader and told him that his colleague is drunk, wasted, and a poor soldier is tied to a metal door, cuffed with a heavy metal chain and being beaten up and tortured by the colonel.
After all, the brigade leader came and tried to calm his colleague down, who was swearing at the country, the leadership of the country and God, saying: “The military liberated this country, the military rules it, and an ophthalmologist cannot rule it“.
The next day, the leadership of the military camp decided to end this round of military training; Our battalion leader told us that flocks of hyenas were seen in and around the training camp, and it is not safe for the students to stay.
The military training camp I attended in 2002 was the last camp that me and my friends at Damascus University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Sociology, attended and shook the throne of Israel with our presence. Also, it was the last time we saw that drunk officer who refused to be ruled by the ophthalmologist and disappeared. The University Military Training Administration was dissolved in 2015, the training camps however, did not.