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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 today. 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.

“Majed,” 16, said that Jabhat al-Nusra in Daraa recruited him and other boys in his community by providing free schooling at a local mosque that included military training and target practice. He said that commanders asked children as well as adults to sign up for suicide attacks. “Sometimes fighters volunteered, and sometimes [commanders] said, ‘Allah chose you.’”

ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have targeted children for recruitment by providing military training in school settings or as part of broader education programs run by the groups. Former recruits described how leaders gave children particularly difficult or dangerous tasks and encouraged them to volunteer for suicide attacks. “Amr,” who fought with ISIS in northern Syria when he was 15, said that his unit leaders encouraged him and other children to volunteer for suicide bombing attacks. He said he signed up reluctantly but was able to get away before his turn came up.

Some armed groups have taken steps to end the use of children in the conflict. In March, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a coalition of opposition groups supported by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), announced its commitment to comply with international humanitarian law, including to “refrain from the recruitment of children and the use of children in hostilities.” The coalition said it had implemented “new training … to eliminate the recruitment and participation of children in armed conflict.” The coalition further said in a letter to Human Rights Watch that the FSA Supreme Military Council also banned the recruitment and use of children in its Proclamation of Principles. Yet Free Syrian Army commanders told Human Rights Watch they continued to accept children in their ranks: “We would accept them whatever the age,” said a brigade commander from Jarablus.

On June 5, a Kurdish military leader announced the group’s plan to stamp out this practice, saying that the armed group would demobilize all fighters under 18 within a month. The internal regulations for the Kurdish police and military forces forbid the use of children under age 18.

Children demobilized from armed groups need special support. Those who wished to leave armed groups and resume a civilian life told Human Rights Watch they had few other options given the lack of support structures. “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 two other armed groups. “I thought of leaving [the fighting] a lot,” he said. “I lost my studies, I lost my future, I lost everything.”

All armed groups in Syria should make a public commitment to ban the recruitment and use of children, and to demobilize all fighters or helpers under 18 in their forces, Human Rights Watch said. Governments and individuals providing aid to Syrian armed groups should review these groups’ policies on child recruitment and urge them to ban the use of children, and to verify recruits’ ages.

Donors should suspend all military sales and assistance, including technical training and services, to all forces credibly implicated in widespread or systematic serious abuses, including using child soldiers. Aid should be restored only if groups end the abuses and take appropriate disciplinary action against anyone involved.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Syria in 2003, bans government forces and non-state armed groups from recruiting and using children, defined as anyone under 18, as fighters and in other support roles. Conscripting or enlisting children under 15, including for support roles, is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  

“Governments supporting armed groups in Syria need to press these forces to end child recruitment and use of children in combat,” Motaparthy said. “Anyone providing funding for sending children to war could be complicit in war crimes.”

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