As the Syrian conflict enter its fourth year, children are increasingly being used in armed combat roles, dragged into the conflict and exposed to extreme violence at an alarming rate. Over 5 million children have been impacted by the Syrian conflict, finding themselves extremely vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation by all parties in Syria’s conflict.
Children have been used as combatants, human shields, messengers, spies, guards and porters, and are sometimes tasked with manning checkpoints and maintain weapons, Laurent Chapuis, UNICEF’s regional child protection adviser for the Middle East and North Africa, told Syria Deeply. Underage Syrian girls have been forced to wed foreign fighters, he added.
While cases of Syrian children being recruited in combat have been used by all parties in the conflict, the Islamic State (ISIS) presents the “most evident … example of a new paradigm of recruitment.
In a wave of extremist education, ISIS militants have altered local school curricula to fit their strict ideology and recruited boys for training camps and religious camps in their de facto capital of Raqqa.
Laurent spoke to Syria Deeply about the alarming trend of children being used in armed and conflict roles and the emergence of a new “child soldier’s paradigm.”
Syria Deeply: What tactics does ISIS use to recruit children into combat? What roles do children take on once they are recruited?
Chapuis: Cases of Syrian children recruited without the consent of their parents and trained and used in combat roles are increasing – but this is not specific to ISIS. There is conclusive evidence that children in Syria have and continue to be used by all parties to the conflict – as combatants, human shields, messengers, spies, guards, porters … [also] for “domestic” purposes like cooking, cleaning, bringing water or providing medical aid to the wounded. There is also evidence that all parties are using children of younger ages.
What is certainly new with regard to ISIS is the level of “appeal” that the group has been able to exert and the effectiveness with which they have been able to use social media and video propaganda to influence foreigners, boys and girls included, to follow their cause.
As we saw with the recent ISIS video of 10-year old Abu Ubaidah – purported to be the youngest ISIS soldier killed to date – children have also been instrumentalized for propaganda purposes by glorifying their combat roles and “martyrdom” in the conflict. The U.N. has also received reports of the children of foreign ISIS fighters used to influence other children in the community to pledge allegiance to and/or join ISIS.
The use of boys and girls in conflict, both in support roles and combat roles, is sadly not a new phenomenon. That being said, we do think that the “child soldier phenomenon” emerging in contexts such as Syria is quite different from the kinds of contexts that child protection agencies used to work in, where the “traditional” model of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) effectively addressed child recruitment in conflicts such as Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. These traditional models of programming and prevention are ineffective in responding to some of the changing and emerging global dynamics of child recruitment.
The geopolitical, regional and international dimensions of today’s armed conflicts and the growing polarization around specific ideological, religious and sectarian agendas are all contributing to the emergence of a new “child soldier’s paradigm,” or new ways in which children are being mobilized, recruited and dragged into conflict and extreme violence. In the recent past, various extremist or ideological groups have radicalized children and widely used them for extreme violence based on religious or ideological grounds, including the LRA in Uganda, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the CPi-Maoist in India, Shining Path in Brazil, the CPN in Nepal, Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaida, the Taliban in Afghanistan, etc.
Syria Deeply:Where are they recruiting children from? How many youth training camps are there inside Syria?
Chapuis: There are indications that recruitment has been taking place both inside and outside Syria. The U.N. has not been able to verify any specific cases of recruitment outside Syria. We also have no information at this time on the number of training camps inside Syria, but there is no doubt that more children are being targeted deliberately by ISIS.
Syria Deeply:Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to IS areas from all over the world, many of them with their families. Are their children expected to join ISIS?
Chapuis:It is hard to predict how many children of the foreign fighters will join the ISIS forces but it is very possible.
In addition to ideological motives, the payment of salaries by armed groups is a key driver for child recruitment, combined with social expectations that once a boy reaches his teenage years, he is considered an adult.
Syria Deeply:You say that no other group comes close to ISIS in using children in such a systematic and organized way. Can you describe their strategy?
Chapuis:What is unique about ISIS is how they openly promote the recruitment and indoctrination of children.
We know from their activities that children are being used by ISIS for a variety of roles – to help maintain and enforce extremist interpretations of Sharia, and have not been spared from combat roles and military operations, including suicide bombing missions.
The U.N. has also documented cases of underaged girls being married to foreign ISIS fighters. The appropriation of schools in ISIS-controlled areas, children’s compulsory attendance in classes and schools teaching ISIS’s religious ideology, children’s training in military camps, and other methods of ideological and religious indoctrination are key features of ISIS’s child recruitment practices.
All parties to the conflict are responsible for this grave violation against children in the Syrian conflict. UNICEF urges all parties to the conflict to abide by their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law with regard to use and recruitment of children.
Syria Deeply:How are they using education as a tool of indoctrination to foster a new generation of supporters? What does a typical school day look like for these children?
Chapuis: We have received information that there are many schools closures as well as a change in textbooks. Many of the youngsters are only taught religious studies by ISIS, so there is no sense of a typical day at school for these children.
Syria Deeply:On the whole, has the nature of conflict created an environment that is fertile for the systematic abuse of Syrian children?
Chapuis: Absolutely. We have over 5 million children affected by the conflict. Many of them are displaced inside Syria, and others as refugees in the neighboring countries. Many of these children have no access to basic services and have also experienced extreme violence on a daily basis. They are quite vulnerable and can be easily exploited.
Syria Deeply:What are the long-term consequences of ISIS’s use of child soldiers – for the children themselves and for Syria at large?
Chapuis: Children used by armed forces and groups are exposed to extreme levels of violence, whether directly or indirectly. They might witness violence being committed, people being tortured, hurt, sexually abused or killed. They can also be coerced into committing acts of violence themselves.
Violence impacts their short- and long-term physical and psychological well-being. It undermines their ability to learn and develop as adults in a healthy manner, to socialize and become loving parents and healthy members of their communities. Violence ultimately jeopardizes their capacity to constructively contribute to their society.