Recruitment of children by armed groups in Syria is on the rise, even as fighting subsides

The number of children recruited by armed groups in Syria has risen steadily over the past three years — from 813 in 2020 to 1,296 in 2021 and 1,696 in 2022, the U.N. says

Hamrin Alouji, the mother of 13-year-old Peyal Aqil, goes through her daughter's photographs at their family home in Qamishli, Syria
Hamrin Alouji, the mother of 13-year-old Peyal Aqil, goes through her daughter's photographs at their family home in Qamishli, Syria, on Monday, June 5, 2023.Baderkhan Ahmad (AP)

A 13-year-old Kurdish girl went missing on her way home from a school exam last month, after being approached by a man from an armed group. Her parents immediately feared the worst — that she had been persuaded to join the group and was taken to one of its training camps.

The girl, Peyal Aqil, was with friends when she encountered the man who turned out to be a recruiter for a group known as the Revolutionary Youth. She followed him to one of the group’s centers in the city of Qamishli in northeast Syria. Her friends waited for her outside, but she never emerged.

Peyal’s mother, Hamrin Alouji, said she and her husband complained to local authorities, to no avail.

The group later said Peyal joined willingly, a claim rejected by Alouji. “We consider that at this age, she cannot give consent, even if she was convinced” by the group’s program, Alouji said, sitting for an interview in her daughter’s room, filled with stuffed animals and school texts.

Armed groups have recruited children throughout the past 12 years of conflict and civil war in Syria. A new United Nations report on children in armed conflict, released Tuesday, says the use of child soldiers in Syria is growing, even as fighting in most parts of Syria is winding down.

The number of children recruited by armed groups in Syria has risen steadily over the past three years — from 813 in 2020 to 1,296 in 2021 and 1,696 in 2022, the U.N. says.

Among those allegedly recruiting children is a U.S. ally in the battle against Islamic State extremists — the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the U.N. In 2022, the U.N. attributed more than a third of the cases, or 637, to the SDF and associated groups in northeast Syria.

The report also said the U.N. had confirmed 611 recruitment cases by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, which has clashed with the SDF in the past, and 383 by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham in northwest Syria. The report cited 25 cases of child recruitment by Syrian government forces and pro-government militias.

Children are being recruited across Syria, said Bassam Alahmad, executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, an independent civil society organization.

In some cases, children are forcibly conscripted, he said. In others, minors sign up because they or their families need the salary. Some join for ideological reasons, or because of family and tribal loyalties. In some cases, children are sent out of Syria to fight as mercenaries in other conflicts.

Attempts to end such recruitment have been complicated by the patchwork of armed groups operating in each part of Syria.

In 2019, the SDF signed an agreement with the U.N. promising to end the enlistment of children younger than 18 and set up a number of child protection offices in its area. The U.S. State Department defended its ally in a statement, saying, that the SDF “is the only armed actor in Syria to respond to the UN’s call to end the use of child soldiers.”

Nodem Shero, a spokesperson for one of the child protection offices run by the SDF-affiliated local administration, acknowledged that children continue to be recruited in areas under SDF control.

However, the complaint mechanism is working, she said. Her office received 20 complaints in the first five months of the year, she said. Four minors were found in the SDF armed forces and were returned to their families. The others were not with the SDF, she said.

In some cases, she said, parents assume their children have been taken by the SDF when they are actually with another group.

Alahmad said recruitment by the group decreased after the 2019 agreement, but that the SDF has not intervened as other groups in its area continue to target children.

Among them is the Revolutionary Youth, a group linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement banned in Turkey. The Revolutionary Youth is licensed by the the local government linked to the SDF — although both groups denied any connection beyond that.

The U.N. report attributed 10 cases to the Revolutionary Youth in 2022, but others say the numbers are higher. In a January report, Alahmad’s group said Revolutionary Youth was responsible for 45 of 49 child recruitment cases it documented in northeastern Syria in 2022.

Alahmad said the SDF-affiliated administration is looking the other way. He called on it to “assume its responsibilities in order to stop these operations.”

An official with the Revolutionary Youth acknowledged that the group recruits minors but denied that it forcibly conscripts them. “We do not kidnap anyone, and we do not force anyone to join us,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules.

“They themselves come to us and tell us their intention to join the service of the nation,” he said. “We do not take minors if they are indecisive or unsure.”

Minors are not immediately sent to armed service, he said. Rather, they initially take part in educational training courses and other activities, after which “they are sent to the mountain if they want,” he said, referring to the PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq.

Asked about Peyal, he said the girl had complained of being unhappy at home and that her parents forced her to wear the hijab.

Alouji said her daughter had given no signs of being unhappy at home, and the night before her disappearance had said she planned to study to be a lawyer.

A month after her May 21 disappearance, Peyal came home. She had run away from one of the group’s training camps, her mother said.

Since her daughter’s return, “her psychological condition has been difficult because she... was subjected to harsh training,” Alouji said. The family no longer feels safe, she said, and is looking for a way to get out of Syria.

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