A religious decree read out on state TV Sunday sent shivers through many Syrians who believe it to be a thinly-veiled move towards compulsory military conscription.
The statement was issued by the Syrian government's top cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badredeen al-Hassoun, on behalf of the country's Supreme Fatwa Council and said: "Military service is a national, faith duty that we should keep to protect the blood of innocents and sanctity of the land."
It can be viewed as simply more rhetoric from the embattled regime. Nonetheless, it is from an important religious source and is unprecedented. It may also be a sign that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is looking to enforce mandatory military service. Certainly, this is the interpretation among Syrian anti-regime activists and commentators on social-media websites.
Countless times since the anti-regime revolt's outbreak two years ago, young Syrian men have been prevented from leaving the country at borders to Jordan and Lebanon. In many cases no official notice has been given and a number of this writer's acquaintances were not given reasons from border guards as to why they were forbidden from leaving. Some Syrians believe the regime is preventing them from departing Syria in order to use them to fight rebels.
Since well before March 2011, thousands of young men have been fleeing Syria in order to avoid compulsory military service, which they believe will be imposed. Today, in the midst of a fully-fledged war, the desire to escape the country is even greater.
It's unclear what the implementation of conscription would do for the regime militarily. As it stands, much of the government's army has been consigned to barracks because soldiers cannot be trusted not to defect and join up with rebels. For the most part, it has been the army's elite fourth brigade and Republican Guard divisions, as well as government militias, that have been loyally fighting on the government's side.
What is interesting about the statement is that the Syrian government has prided itself as a secular ruling power. The type of Islamic language used to announce the decree will puzzle many not used to hearing such rhetoric on national television, and will also sideline non-Muslim Syrians.
Ahmad Badredeen al-Hassoun is a staunch pro-Assad figure and has appeared at the president's side on dozens of occasions during the revolt. His 22-year-old son, Saria, was killed in October 2011 when a car he was travelling in was fired upon on a highway between the cities of Aleppo and Idlib. The government blamed 'terrorists,' the standard term used when speaking about the rebels.