DAMASCUS, March 14 (Reuters) - When a government-linked Islamic body in Syria said this week it was a "sacred duty" to join the army and fight the revolt, Damascus was ablaze with rumours of a mass military draft.
Men of military age panicked, worrying they would be given a gun and told to fight never-ending street battles with rebel fighters before being returned to their families in a wooden box, like thousands of soldiers over the past two years.
President Bashar al-Assad's forces are stretched thin across the country as the opposition takes further ground, overrunning military bases and executing prisoners. Fleeing reservists say morale is low among troops, who are virtually imprisoned in their barracks by officers who fear they'll defect or flee.
Mohammed, a 30-year-old who supports Assad, said he would rather flee the country than fight the rebels.
"So what exactly would I be doing if I got drafted? Killing rebels? They'll kill me back," he said, asking to withhold his second name for fear of retribution.
"I'd be dead no matter what, like a lamb to the slaughter," said Mohammed, who completed his two-year mandatory military service years ago. "Yeah, sure I support the regime, but this isn't my fight."
The official news agency SANA denied the authorities were planning to organise a draft.
"While military service is a sacred national duty, there's absolutely no truth in news by some media outlets about issuing a general call for conscription," it said. The army is "well prepared to repel and confront terrorists," it added, using the government's term for the armed opposition.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London said on Thursday the Syrian army's strength has roughly halved to around 110,000 men due to defections, desertions and battlefield losses.
"Essentially, the regime could only be certain of the loyalty of the mainly Alawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the elite 3rd and 4th Divisions - perhaps 50,000 troops in total," the think tank said in its annual report on the world's militaries.
Friday is the two-year anniversary of the uprising, and Damascus residents are bracing for a big rebel push. Some parents decided to keep their children at home on Thursday. Earlier in the week there was an exodus of families leaving the city, although streets were quiet by Wednesday afternoon.
Rebel fighters have reached outer suburbs but have not been able to penetrate the city's centre. Machinegun fire could be heard in nearby suburbs and shells fell on an inner-city district on Wednesday as rebel positions encroached the capital.
A diplomat said security forces had closed off half the roads leading to the capital's eastern suburbs, which are a rebel stronghold.
The revolt started in 2011 with peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms from a family-based leadership that has ruled since Assad's father, Hafez, took power in 1970.
Since then, the rebellion has grown into a full-scale civil war with a sectarian dimension. Most fighters are drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad holds the loyalty of many in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and other minorities, who fear retribution if he falls.
The draft rumour spread this week after Syria's highest official Sunni Muslim body issued a religious decree on Sunday calling on Syrians to join the military, which it called both "a national and a sacred duty".
Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, a staunch supporter of Assad who lost his son in a rebel ambush in October 2011, called on parents to push their children "toward this duty, and do not worry, for they will not be killed, only rewarded by God."
Opposition sources say the call came after clashes broke out in Assad's family hometown of Qurdaha, populated by Alawites.
Alawites feel they are carrying the lion's share of Assad's fight and opposition sources said men in Qurdaha who want Sunnis to share more of the burden clashed with police who were trying to draft them. Reuters is unable to verify the account due to reporting restrictions in Syria.
Damascenes have been exchanging tales of young men snatched at checkpoints from the streets and taken into military service.
A 40-year-old man in Damascus said joining the army is his biggest fear as he would be forced to flee Syria and leave his elderly parents behind.
"I was worried enough to see my mother's reaction to the news of a mass draft, when we all first heard it on TV," he said. "She became excitable and her face flushed red. So I changed the channel right away. I don't want to upset her."
Syria requires mandatory military service of up to two years for men aged 18. But there are many exemptions, including a temporary delay if the man is enrolled in college, and a permanent exemption if he is the only son in the family.
Thousands of young men are believed to have dodged their military service to avoid going to the front lines during the civil war. Some families hide their military-aged sons at home, while some of the well-to-do have sent their sons abroad.
There is talk of male college students in their final year of studies purposely failing courses to remain enrolled in university and exempt from military service.
Some anti-Assad Damascenes said a draft would push them to join the rebels.
"Bring it on. If Assad wants to entrust me with a gun, I'll kill his troops on my first day," said one man in his forties.
"I can't tell you how many men there are, much younger than I, who are just waiting for the slightest excuse to pick up arms and join the rebels. Assad can't be so stupid as to arm men who want to see him dead." (Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Peter Graff and Janet McBride)