Reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, KurdWatch and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria show that the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistans Worker Party (PKK), regularly recruit children between the ages of 12 and 17 and send them into armed combat.
There are no exact figures on how many children are part of the YPG and the YPJ. Many parents whose sons and daughters have been recruited by these organizations remain silent – either out of fear, or because they hope to achieve the release of their children through some sort of negotiations. However, eyewitness accounts of former child soldiers clearly show that the recruitment of children is not an exception.
Nurman Ibrahim Khalifa, kidnapped by the PYD in al-Qamishli in 2014 when she was 13, said that large numbers of minors are kept in military camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Escape attempts are punished severely. Khalifa told KurdWatch the story of a young woman, about 18, who tried eight times to escape from a PKK camp. After she had been hunted down for the eighth time, a public meeting was convened, and the young woman was placed on a stage. A PKK commander held a gun against her head and said: “This PKK bullet is too good for you.” The girl was then shot and thrown into the river.
The recruitment of minors is a common tool that militias use to groom loyal cadres. It is easier to recruit adolescents than adults, especially if they are told that their fight is “heroic.” For young women and girls from conservative patriarchal families in particular, entry into the Women’s Defense Units also seems to promise freedoms that they would not otherwise have. Children and adolescents are not as capable of resisting PYD’s ideological training as adults.
However, there is another crucial reason for the increased recruitment of minors by the YPG: Many Kurdish men between 18 and 40 have left the country for the fear of forced recruitment – a practice also applied to adults – and other political repressions by the PYD. This left a staff shortage within the YPG, which is now to be met with the recruitment of kids.
The West has not yet recognized the YPG’s recruiting practices as a serious human rights violation. Instead, many media outlets as well as representatives of political parties, and not only those on the left, have accepted the PYD and PKK propaganda that in Rojava, as they call Syrian Kurdistan, they are attempting to build a democratic Syria in which women can contribute equally and no ethnic differences are made.
The term “autonomous democratic self-administration,” chosen by the PYD for the territory it administers, is, however, misleading. The PYD is, as its mother organization, the PKK, a tightly organized cadre party. All important functions in the PYD are held by PKK cadres, and fundamental decisions are taken by the military leaders of the PKK, which are based in the Iraqi Kurdish Qandil Mountains. The numerous PYD committees existing on the local level do not serve democratic decision making, but focus on the control of the population. Individuals who refuse to be integrated are suspicious.
The PYD’s and PKK’s understanding of democracy is not the same system of governance practice by Western states. Rather, it corresponds to the model of “people’s democracy,” a political concept taken from former socialist countries. Within a people’s democracy, there is one ruling party, and all other groups are subordinate. Competing parties are not allowed to participate in the political process. The largely PYD-critical parties of the Kurdish National Council – an association of 12 Syrian Kurdish parties – are thus neither involved in the PYD’s administration nor in its Parliament.
Within the Kurdish regions, the YPG, together with the Assayish, the PYD’s intelligence service that functions as a police force, abuses its position as the only armed militia in order to enforce its exclusive claim to authority. Independent activists and journalists as well as members of oppositional Kurdish political parties are systematically kidnapped and tortured. Moreover, demonstrations critical of the PYD are frequently banned or dissolved and offices of oppositional parties are closed down. Freedom of assembly, freedom of press and freedom of opinion are non-existent. Furthermore, since 2012, more than 30 political critics of the PYD have been killed. Activists call the PYD’s rule “Baath rule under Kurdish prefixes.”
It is the victory of the YPG over the Islamic State (ISIS) in Kobani in 2014 and in Tel Abyad in 2015 that has contributed significantly to the PYD’s international recognition and acceptance. It was as early as Kobani that the YPG was supported by U.S.-led coalition air strikes. Meanwhile, direct military aid from the United States is provided to the YPG as well as to the “Syrian Democratic Forces.” The latter is an alliance between the YPG, YPJ (the YPG’s all-female outfit) and Arab militias, set up in October 2015 and dominated by the YPG. At the same time, the YPG is cooperating closely with the Syrian regime. Syria as well as Russia are also providing weapons to the YPG.
Thus far, there is only sporadic resistance against the PYD’s political practices in Syria’s Kurdish regions. On December 27, 2014, for example, the Kurdish National Council’s local committee organized a demonstration in ʿAmudah against the forcible recruitment of minors. Approximately 600 people took part in the rally, including numerous politicians and activists. The demonstration was in response to the kidnapping of the 15-year-old student Hamrin Husayn. One of the demonstrators’ banners read: “The Islamic State is kidnapping our women and the PYD our children.”
Such protests, however, only have a chance to change the rules of the game if the West recognizes the YPG’s forcible recruitment of children as a serious problem, and applies corresponding pressure – the stop of arms supplies included.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: A Kurdish man stands during the funeral of YPG fighter in Kobani on Nov. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)