“At first I was so scared… then I got used to it,” said Ayman, who began fighting with an FSA brigade in Salqin when he was 15 years old.
“Maybe we’ll live, and maybe we’ll die,” said Omar, who began fighting at age 14 with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Non-state armed groups in Syria have used children as young as 15 to fight in battles, sometimes recruiting them under the guise of offering education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday. The groups have used children as young as 14 in support roles. Extremist Islamist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) have specifically recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.
The 31-page report “‘Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” documents the experiences of 25 children and former child soldiers in Syria’s armed conflict. Human Rights Watch interviewed children who fought with the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front coalition, and the extremist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, as well as the military and police forces in Kurdish-controlled areas. The report does not, for logistical and security reasons, cover all armed groups that allegedly have used children in Syria, in particular pro-government militias. Using children in armed conflict violates international law.
“Syrian armed groups shouldn’t prey on vulnerable children -- who have seen their relatives killed, schools shelled, and communities destroyed -- by enlisting them in their forces,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, Middle East children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The horrors of Syria’s armed conflict are only made worse by throwing children into the front lines.”
The number of children fighting with armed groups in Syria is not known. By June 2014, the Violations Documenting Center, a Syrian monitoring group, had documented 194 deaths of “non-civilian” male children in Syria since September 2011.
The children Human Rights Watch interviewed had fought in battles, acted as snipers, manned checkpoints, spied on hostile forces, treated the wounded on battlefields, and ferried ammunition and other supplies to front lines while fighting raged. They said they joined non-state armed groups for various reasons. Many followed their relatives or friends, while others lived in battle zones without schooling or other options. Some had participated in public protests that motivated them to do more, or had personally suffered at the hands of the government. While all those interviewed were boys, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) police force and armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, enlisted girls to guard checkpoints and conduct armed patrols in Kurdish-controlled areas.
Boys have joined armed opposition groups for various reasons. Many simply followed their relatives or friends. Others lived in battle zones without open schools, participated in public protests, or had personally suffered at the hands of the government. Islamist groups such as ISIS have more aggressively targeted children for recruitment, providing free lectures and schooling that included weapons and other military training.
“At first I was so scared…then I got used to it,” said Ayman, who began fighting with an FSA brigade in Salqin when he was 15 years old.
Others interviewed echoed his words. Few had plans or real hopes for their future beyond the next battle. “Maybe we’ll live, and maybe we’ll die,” said Omar, who began fighting at age 14 with Jabhat al-Nusra.
International humanitarian law (the laws of war) and international human rights law ban government forces and non-state armed groups from recruiting and using children as fighters and in other support roles. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Syria ratified in 2003, bans non-state armies from recruiting or using children under age 18 in direct hostilities. Conscripting or enlisting children under 15, including for support roles, is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Several of the children interviewed said they fought with two or three different armed groups fighting Syrian government forces. Some -- like Amr who said he received US$100 a month -- received monthly salaries of up to $135, while others said they participated without pay. Many attended training camps where they learned military tactics and had weapons training.
Children who wished to leave armed groups and resume a civilian life told Human Rights Watch they had few options to do so. Saleh, 17, said he fought with the Free Syrian Army at 15 after he was detained and tortured by government security forces. He later joined Ahrar al-Sham, then left to join the Jund al-Aqsa, an independent Islamist armed group. “I thought of leaving [the fighting] a lot,” he said. “I lost my studies, I lost my future, I lost everything. I looked for work, but there’s no work. This is the most difficult period for me.”
Some armed groups told Human Rights Watch that they prohibit child recruitment, or have taken preliminary steps to end the practice. In March 2014, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a coalition of opposition groups supported by the Free Syrian Army, announced that it had implemented “new training for Free Syrian Army members in International Humanitarian Law to eliminate the recruitment and participation of children in armed conflict.”
If they have not already done so, armed groups operating in Syria should publicly commit to end recruitment and use of children under age 18, and should demobilize all fighters or others under 18 currently in their ranks, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
Those recruited under age 18 but now no longer children should be free to leave opposition forces. Armed groups should also work with international agencies specialized in child protection to rehabilitate and reintegrate these children into civilian life. Finally, they should ensure that all officers under their command understand the ban on recruiting or seeking assistance from children, and establish age-verification procedures they must follow to enforce it. Officers responsible for recruitment who continue to enlist children should be appropriately disciplined.
To address the practice of children joining armed groups in Syria, UN bodies should seek public commitments from armed groups not to recruit or enlist children under age 18 and use age-verification procedures to ensure that children do not join. The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to allow prosecution of war crimes, including the conscripting or enlisting of children under 15 into armed forces or non-state armed groups or their active participation in hostilities.
Governments providing aid to armed groups in Syria should review these groups’ policies on child recruitment, and should suspend all military sales and assistance, including technical training and services, to all forces credibly implicated in the widespread or systematic commission of serious abuses, including the use of child soldiers, until they stop committing these crimes and take appropriate disciplinary action against perpetrators. They should also restrict residents of their countries from providing military support to these groups.
Finally, humanitarian agencies operating in Syria or assisting refugees in neighboring countries should support efforts to provide secondary education opportunities for children, and address the particular needs and vulnerabilities of boys aged 13 to 18 in their child protection programming.