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How Syrian Children Are Recruited Into Battle

Last week, the United Nations released a report detailing the myriad abuses of Syrian children by those on each side of the conflict.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Since 2011, it alleges, children as young as 11 have been recruited to fight in battle, sexually abused and tortured in detention. 

It cites U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, who says that Syrian children have been subjected to “unspeakable suffering” and urging the sides to “take, without delay, all measures to protect and uphold the rights of all children in Syria.”

We asked Priyanka Motaparthy, researcher in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch who investigates violations of children’s rights in the Middle East, to weigh in in the severity of the problem compared with other war zones, the recruitment process, and what should be done to stem the tide.  

Syria Deeply: How are the children recruited?

Priyanka Motaparthy: The way that the recruitment happens really seems to depend on the group doing it. That’s something the U.N. report was good about making clear. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) uses children in support roles and given those as young as 16 guns and sent them into combat. At the same time they were brought in through community networks: a father, an uncle, a cousin, someone in their family or personal network who was part of the battalion, and they would join alongside them.

Commanders and family members told me that they don’t see them as children. By the time you’re 12, 13, you’re a man, that’s how they think about it. We started seeing a phenomenon: that the boys we met weren’t in school, they were working in farms or restaurants or mechanic shops, they were illiterate. So part of it is that parts of Syrian society are rural or traditional, and you have children leaving school at earlier ages. And in a conflict setting when their parents are going to war, they do too.

There’s more awareness now that children should be kept out of combat, so FSA commanders are trying to hide them in storehouses or away from the hot areas. With the extremist groups, recruitment is more systematic. You have some of these groups trying to control schooling and they do Quranic schooling and use it as a way to bring children into their recruitment. There’s a cultural sense there as well, that once you’re past a certain age, you should behave as a man.

SD: Where is this happening the most?

PM: It seems like quite a problem in northern Syria, where you find groups like Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra. It’s also happening in southern Syria. The highest number of child noncivilian combatants have died in northern Syria.

SD: What are the most common offenses you see?

PM: We’ve heard stories of kids being sexually abused in detention, beaten and quite brutally tortured in security force detention facilities, and that was happening as early as March 2011. They’re aged 13 and up, and it’s primarily boys, but girls are also detained.

SD: What needs to happen to stem the tide?

PM: One of the the things we focus on is aid, and so does the report; it has strong recommendations for what needs to happen. You have children in Syria not getting vaccinations, children who are literally surviving on boiled leaves or what they can pluck from trees. They are using herbs for medicine. So I think what we’re hoping is that we’ll see some progress on the humanitarian front, including by the crossing of international borders, which has not been allowed at this time.

It’s one of the worst situations for children that you can find anywhere in the world. You have every single [worst-case scenario]  happening. Children being raped, recruited as child soldiers, denied access to aid: every single one is happening in Syria.

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