A Syrian army modified T-72 tank during an assault to capture the rebel-held village of Hawsh Nasri, on the eastern outskirts of Damascus on Nov. 22. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s army said Tuesday that it had formed a new volunteer corps to join its five-year war effort, an announcement that underscored the extent to which its once-sprawling armed forces have crumbled. 

In a statement, the army encouraged men 18 and older to register for the newly minted Fifth Legion at recruitment centers across the country. 

It said the volunteers would work alongside forces allied with the Syrian government, “eliminating terrorism” and returning “security and stability” to the country.

As Syria’s war grinds on, President Bashar al-Assad’s army is increasingly reliant on conscripts and even prisoners. It also receives heavy support from Russian and Iranian forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias, as well as powerful Syrian paramilitary groups. 

In a rare speech last year, Assad described the problem as a “shortfall in human capacity” but insisted that his military remained ready and able to fight.

“Defeat does not exist in the dictionary of the Syrian Arab Army,” he said. 

Although the numerical strength of Syria’s remaining military force is unknown, experts say it is less than half of its 300,000-strong prewar high. That sharp reduction has hurt its ability to hold land without the help of its allies.

“We know the Syrian Arab Army is facing a serious manpower shortage due to defections, desertions, draft evasion and casualties,” said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a Washington-based think tank.

Syria already conscripts men 18 and older into the army. Before the war, that service would last for two years. Now, many conscripts say they have served much longer, with no sign of discharge on the horizon.

Men of fighting age are routinely picked up from checkpoints if their names are on a list of wanted conscripts. But others are unable to avoid the draft.

Men fleeing military service are dotted throughout the Syrian diaspora. Many have been able to defer military service with a payment of $300, but not all have been as lucky. 

George, 35, a laborer from the western province of Homs, said he was arrested as he tried to leave Syria. 

In an interview in Turkey earlier this year, he described how he had been flown first to the northeastern city of Qamishli and later to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. There, he manned a checkpoint facing an Islamic State position. “It was terror every day,” he said. “They knew I was a Christian, and I feared for my life.”

Fighters have even been recruited from the prison population. Three inmates freed from the Adra Central Prison near Damascus told The Washington Post that prison officials had offered cellmates their freedom in return for a commitment to fight. More than 100 men had accepted, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

With the Syrian economy in free fall, the Damascus war effort has been bolstered by two powerful militia forces — known as the Tiger Forces and the Desert Hawks — that pay higher salaries and allow recruits more freedom to reap the spoils of war, taking bribes at checkpoints and looting areas newly retaken from the armed opposition.

In an apparent attempt to circumvent that, the military’s statement Tuesday said state employees would retain the right to benefits they were already receiving through their jobs.

Itani said the provision appeared aimed at “sweetening the deal,” adding that the announcement may also be a concession to one of the government’s key military allies, Russia.

“Russia has preferred to deal with state institutions over militia, but that hasn’t always been practical due to the composition of forces fighting the insurgency,” he said.

Russian and Iranian forces are playing a central role in the battle to retake the eastern districts of Aleppo from rebel forces. The extent of their own losses became clearer Tuesday when Mohammad Ali Shahidi Mahallati, head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs, told the Tasnim News Agency that more than 1,000 Iranian soldiers have been killed in Syria.