Published on Daraj Media
Three years ago, Mohammed Abu Abbas, only 17 years old , from Idlib Governorate, found no difficulty to join Jund al-Aqsa, a hardline Islamist faction.
At that time, the faction was being active in the governorate and launching military operations along with other opposing factions, which fight against the Syrian regime’s army.
But that was before Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, ended its military presence in the area last year.
Having engaged in fighting against other opposing factions, the remaining members of Jund al-Aqsa were transferred to the areas run by “Daesh” in the east. Continuing to work as a fighter, Abu Abbas, only 14 years old, has defected from Jund al-Aqsa and joined Hay’etTahrir al-Sham, the most powerful military faction.
“I joined Hay’etTahrir al-Sham three years ago. First, I underwent an intensive course in Sharia and in military training, getting acquainted with the fundamental concepts of Islam, the basic military tasks, and the way in which battles against Al-Assad’s forces are fought. For almost a year, I had been an ordinary fighter in a battalion until the battalion commander was martyred. Then, being well-built, I have chosen from among the brethren to be the new battalion commander.”
After talking with the “child” soldier, Abu Abbas, it turns out that the religious motive has been the springboard for his involvement in the fighting. “Jihad is an obligation imposed on every Muslim,” he said. “We are being killed every day by artillery and aerial bombing. Of course, young men are joining their mujahideen brethren to defend their religion, their honor and their land. Under the leadership of Jund al-Aqsa, we received neither salary nor monetary aid, and we were earning money by selling spoils of war. However, the basic necessities of life, such as food and water, were secured in my residence in the battalion headquarter,” he added.
After the peaceful protests in Syria transformed into military conflict in 2011, the recruitment of children has become widespread in the north and whole of Syria, where the various military factions and the forces on the ground have been actively involved in recruiting children as soldiers for military operations.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that the children of Syria faced unprecedented suffering as a result of the escalation of violence in 2016, the worst year since the outbreak of the war in 2011. They are being recruited to “fight on the front lines of war”, to perform acts of “execution”, to “detonate suicide belts”, or to work as prison guards. More than 850 Syrian children, more than double compared with 2015, were recruited to fight in 2016.
Another type of child recruitment
The recruitment of children is not only limited to prompting them to fight on the front lines of battles, but also extends to making them fulfill works related to military manufacturing, night watching, manning military checkpoints and others, which constitutes a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Such works are carried out only to receive material benefit, according to the view of Hassan Al-Hamawi, 16 years old, who has been working for almost a year in a weapons factory in the western countryside of Aleppo.
In fact, the young fighter, Al-Hamawi , does not know the name of the faction for which he works.
Needing to earn a daily income after losing his brother during a raid on the area, he finds himself forced to do such a work as this in order to support his family.
“My job is to help everyone in the factory, which produces its own improvised mortars. I go to the work every day at 7 am and come back at 4 pm, and the daily hours of the work include some rest periods. However, sometimes there is pressure of work, so we neither rest nor eat,” he says.
Al-Hamwi gets an amount of 50,000 pounds ($ 100) each month. In addition, he receives a food parcel, “which may not be delivered monthly,” according to him.
Compared with his peers who fight on the front lines, Al-Hamwi feels comfortable and is considered fortunate in having such a job, which does not endanger his life, because “the factory does not contain explosive materials, and his work is limited to manufacturing molds”. He says, “I’m too young to join battle, but when I grow up, I will certainly establish my identity as a first-rate fighter.”
At the same factory, Al-Hamwi shares the work with another 10-year-old boy, whose task is to help the “adults”, to prepare tea and coffee for the workers, and to clean and sweep the floor.
Phenomenon needs to be fought by Awareness-raising initiatives
The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement and other factions, the most notable of which is Hay’etTahrir al-Sham, have run Idleb governorate since 2015. The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement has set out conditions for gaining its membership, identifying the age group.
Omar Khattab, a military spokesman for the Movement, says: “Undoubtedly, we categorically refuse to let our sons who lack mental and physical ability get involved in battles. We refrain from making our children fuel for the ongoing war. But, We seek to create a generation capable of sustaining the revolution, a generation who is educated and is on the right track.”
He denied that the Movement had recruited persons, whether young or old. “Actually, the basis and goal of the Movement as well as the clarity of its purpose and its actual achievements on the ground are what have prompted many to join it,” he said.
Although organizations and supervisory bodies confirm that the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement has recruited children, the military spokesman for it emphasizes that “the talk about the recruitment of children by the Movement is devoid of truth and is unsupported by any evidence.”
When asked about the measures taken in relation to children asking to join the Movement’s ranks, he explained “There are so many other things that can save children’s lives and keep them away from the risk as much as possible.Such children can undergo religious and medical courses as well as joining educational centers.”
Increasing numbers of recruits
Al-Ahmad believes that ”the list of shame”, published by The UN in a detailed annual report on the phenomenon of recruiting children, has included factions or other parties that recruit children around the world.
According to Al-Ahmad, the United Nations has documented the involvement of several factions in recruiting children in Syria. Such factions include: the Free Army; the Islamic factions, such as Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham; unknown armed groups; the regime’s militias; and the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit.
In general, all parties and warring factions have disproportionately involved in recruiting children.
Usually, the recruitment age is between the ages of 15 and 18.
However, there are cases of recruiting children under the age of 15; Al-Ahmad confirms that the rate of such cases is estimated at 15 to 30 percent of all the children recruited in Syria. While The factions that recruit children present “flimsy arguments” including that children aged 15 are appropriate to participate in war, Al-Ahmad says, “Such arguments are not accepted”.
Portraying children as heroes
There are many reasons that prompt children to enroll in military service. The common reasons are the poor living conditions; the military factions’ propaganda activities, suchpropaganda activities are also conducted by “Daesh”; and the temptations by the armed groups which include paying monthly salaries and giving aid to the recruited and their families.
In addition, children have been considerably induced by armed groups to accept military recruitment. The armed groups portray their acts as acts of heroism, so children believe that they would become heroes when joining them, according to Jalal Ahmed, the director of Justice For Life Organization.
This phenomenon is on the increase in the north of Syria.
Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers in armed conflicts constitute a war crime, according to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.
Human rights lawyers and activists previously confirmed the recruitment of 500 children in Idlib after the campaign of “Enfer”, Go Forth, in 2016;the campaign was conducted by both the “Center For Jihad Advocacy”, affiliated to Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Saudi preacher Abdullah al-Muhaysini, targeting children from various camps and districts in Idlib.
This investigative report is prepared by the support and supervision of the Syrian Investigative Unit, SIRAJ.