By John Davison
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Nasser lifts another cigarette to his mouth with a scarred left hand, chain smoking and watching action films on a grainy TV at his friend's flat in a Beirut suburb. Since deserting President Bashar al-Assad's army he mostly avoids venturing outdoors.
Shrapnel from a rebel shell ripped into his knuckles when he was serving on a front line of the Syrian conflict in Mouadamiya near Damascus. The blast means his vision is impaired at night, the light-framed 24-year-old said.
"When it's dark I can't see much from far away. I wouldn't know if there was a checkpoint at the end of the road."
He limits his movements to a few hundred yards from this temporary accommodation, fearing arrest for squatting in Lebanon illegally. Nasser used an alias for fear of identification by Lebanese or Syrian authorities.
Many young Syrian men are deserting like Nasser or dodging the draft altogether to avoid the experiences that have left conscripts physically and mentally scarred and with an uncertain future. The prospect of being forced to fight in a civil war is a major factor driving them in large numbers to seek refuge in neighboring countries or Europe.
Five years of fighting between various warring sides including the government, rebel groups and Islamic State has taken its toll on the army which numbered around 300,000 personnel pre-war, according to military experts.
Kheder Khaddour of the Carnegie Middle East Center said the number serving in the army is likely to have shrunk considerably through defections, deaths, desertion and draft-dodging.
"If it was 300,000 in the army, now it's less than half and probably less than that, that seems like a large number," Khaddour said. The Syrian army does not release such statistics.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that at least 80,000 members of the Syrian army have been killed in a conflict that has claimed more than 250,000 lives. The Syrian military has not released its death toll.
"NORMAL NUMBER" FOR WARTIME
Khaddour said a bigger problem than manpower for the government side was its heavy reliance on militias, in a war where quality of fighters has been more important than quantity.
The Damascus government is bolstered by local militias, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian troops, as well as Russian air power.
Moscow's intervention in September helped turn the war Assad's way, although insurgents have made gains in some areas.
A Syrian military source said desertion and draft-dodging were a "phenomenon found in all armies" and that Syria was not a special case. "For wartime, it's a normal number," the source said. He added that those who gave themselves up were often accepted back into the military without punishment.
Syrian men are called up to the army aged 18. Before the war, service would last for two years but now many conscripts say they have served for several years, with no sign of being discharged.
Several draft-dodgers living in Lebanon said they had deferred military service for a fee while studying, then fled.
Nasser joined up at 18 in 2011, but quickly wanted to leave after experiencing combat. "Since I was a kid I'd wanted to join, I loved action films," he said, indicating toward the TV. "But from when I first joined, I realized I was an idiot."
After his injuries and nearly three years of service, Nasser deserted and hid at home in Damascus for one year. He turned himself in when Assad announced an amnesty for deserters, but said he was immediately sent for 15 days of interrogation.
Instead of returning to his unit, Nasser fled to Lebanon, crossing illegally for fear of being turned back, and has moved from one location to another for months, struggling to find work and failing to obtain refugee status.
"I'm young but tired of life. Every time I see a military vehicle I'm scared, it's constant stress.
"I'm stuck here, trying to think how to get myself out of this situation," Nasser said, adding there was no prospect of heading elsewhere without any papers.
Lebanon stopped the United Nations registering Syrian refugees last year in an attempt to cope with large numbers fleeing. There are more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, roughly a quarter of its population.
Among the refugees and Syrians who have entered on other visas are many men dodging the draft.
"Military service has become unlimited ... no one knows how long they'll go for," said Ahmed Jawad, a student living north of Beirut, also using an alias so as not to be identified by the Syrian authorities.
Draft evasion can be punished by termination of employment for state workers, the government says. Amnesty International says men fleeing military service can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
"I DON'T WANT TO KILL"
"There are guys who haven't seen their families for years while they've been in the army. Sometimes the families don't know if they're still alive," said Jawad, whose brother fled to Germany to avoid enlistment.
"I don't want to kill anyone. It's an injustice that someone who doesn't want to fight is forced to," Jawad added.
As well as fighting on the front line, government troops have been under siege by Islamic State, including until late last year at an air base near Aleppo, which prompted protests by their families.
Jawad wants to see his family in coastal Latakia, but will not return while the war rages for fear of being drafted.
Draft-age men resident abroad for four years can pay a fee of $8,000 to avoid service completely, according to a 2014 presidential decree.
"Only a small percentage of Syrians can afford this. If I had $8,000 I wouldn't pay it to the army, I'd go and study in Europe," Jawad said.
Samer Hadid, a fine arts graduate from Damascus who also used an alias, fled for Lebanon immediately after finishing his degree.
"I could do a lot with that amount of money, I could work with it. It's better than going back and living in a war zone," he said, speaking at a Beirut cafe where he was applying for a waitering job.
Hadid, Jawad and Nasser join an exodus of nearly 5 million Syrians who have fled the war, which is in its sixth year.
Damascus has expressed concern over the brain drain, with Assad in a recent interview lamenting the loss of "educated, well-trained" people as refugees.
(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Peter Millership)