Syrian rebel groups, including ISIS fighters, have been recruiting 10-17-year-old children for military operations sometimes under the guise of offering education, says HRW. The teens were taught how to use weapons and were even sent on suicide missions.
“Opposition armed groups used boys as young as 15 as fighters and children as young as 14 in support roles. Some children who participated were detained or killed in battle,” says the latest report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, “‘Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” deals with experiences of 25 boys who are current or former members of opposition armed groups.
Though the rebels mostly “employed” children of 15-17, one doctor described treating a boy of between 10 and 12 years old. He said that the boy’s job was “to whip prisoners held in an ISIS detention facility.”
“Boys interviewed fought on the frontlines, spied on hostile forces, acted as snipers, treated the wounded on battlefields, and ferried ammunition and other supplies to battles while fighting raged,” HRW’s report says.
The number of children fighting on behalf of the rebels is as yet unknown, the report says. But it gives the data from the Violations Documenting Center, a Syrian monitoring group, which by May 2014 recorded 194 “non-civilian” male children killed since September 2011.
According to the rights watchdog, the children were taken by several extremist organizations. Among them were the Free Syrian Army (FSA), extremist Islamist forces such as the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) military and Asayish police forces in Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Syria.
The boys say they have joined the rebels due to different reasons. Some of them followed their relatives or friends who already served there. Other recruits “lived in battle zones without open schools, participated in public protests, or had personally suffered at the hands of the government,” HWR says.
The commanders sometimes asked the children and adults to take part in suicide missions, the boys added.
“Sometimes fighters volunteered, and sometimes [commanders] said, ‘Allah chose you,’” said Majed, 16, recruited by Jabhat al-Nusra in Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria.
Amr, another 15-year-old who fought with ISIS in northern Syria, 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.
“Maybe we’ll live, and maybe we’ll die,” said Omar, who started fighting at age 14 with Jabhat al-Nusra.
In the meantime, the ISIS jihadist militant group recruited the teens more aggressively, “providing free lectures and schooling that included weapons and other military training,” HRW says.
Bassim, 17, who joined ISIS at age 16, told HRW that he was “inspired” by speeches and sermons given by members of the group.
“When ISIS came to my town…I liked what they are wearing, they were like one herd. They had a lot of weapons. So I spoke to them, and decided to go their training camp in Kafr Hamra in Aleppo,” he said,“The leader of the camp said [ISIS] liked the younger ones better…He told me, ‘Tomorrow they’ll be a stronger leader or a stronger fighter.’”
Some children received monthly salaries of up to $135 for their participation in the conflict, while others said they fought without pay.
“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.”
Children who wanted to quit ‘dangerous business’ told HRW that they had a few options after leaving the rebels.
“I thought of leaving [the fighting] a lot,” said Saleh, 17, one of the recruits. “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.”
International humanitarian law bans government forces and non-state armed groups from recruiting and using children as fighters and in other support roles. “Employing” children under 15 is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The extremist groups denied recruiting children under 18 years old. However, the commanders of FSA said they don’t turn away children of 16-17 when they came to them eager to fight.
“Sixteen, 17 is not young. [If we don’t take him] he’ll go fight on his own,” Abu Rida, leader of the Saif Allah al-Maslool brigade, an FSA group in Daraa, said.
HRW in its report strongly condemns hiring the teens for fighting, saying that armed groups operating in Syria should publicly commit to end recruitment and use of children under age 18.
“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.”
Some armed groups told HRW that they prohibit child recruitment, while others say they still use this practice.
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.
HRW’s report, however, for logistical and security reasons, doesn’t cover all the groups that have been reportedly using children for military operations in Syria. It says that several sources proved that teens were also fighting with government troops or pro-government militias.