The true horror of the Syrian crisis is hard to imagine, but the plight of Syrian children is particularly horrifying. This piece is not about the massive humanitarian needs, the displacements, or the insecurity. It is about the children that are thrust into the heart of the violence through their use in military operations.
The number of child soldiers in Syria is unknown, however it is reasonable to expect a significant number are involved in the fighting. The so called Islamic State (IS) is particularly notorious for its use of children. It is estimated that there are more than 1,100 children involved in their operations. They are not the only guilty party, as reports have shown that all armed groups involved in the conflict have used children at some point. In the first three years of the conflict there were 194 “non-civilian” male children killed according to a Syrian monitoring group.
I will attempt to explain the various contexts and conditions that have allowed for the recruitment of child soldiers in Syria.
THE CONTEXT OF CHILD RECRUITMENT
The longer the conflict, the harsher the violations against children. One aspect of that is the increasing dependence on children for military campaigns. In the earlier years of the conflict, most of the children recruited by armed forces and groups were boys between 15 and 17 years old, and they were used primarily in support roles away from the front lines. However, since 2014, the resource and personnel drain caused by the longevity of the conflict has resulted in an increasing dependence on children, with recruitment in some cases of children as young as seven years old.
According to a recent UNICEF report, these children are receiving military training and participating in combat, or taking up life-threatening roles at the battlefront, including carrying and maintaining weapons, manning checkpoints, and treating and evacuating the wounded. Parties to the conflict are also using children to kill, some even as executioners or snipers.
CONVENIENT CONDITIONS FOR ATROCITIES
To people living in extreme economic misery and insecurity, child soldiering can quickly become a real option. Contrary to popular belief, a large proportion of child soldiers in the world actually ‘volunteer’, or are sent off by their families. According to War Child Organisation, this may be because the life of a child soldier appears preferable to the life they have. The Syrian case is no exception. The conditions of malnutrition, in besieged cities for instance, make armed groups look like a viable option for survival.
According to UNICEF, an estimated one third of Syrian children (3.7 million) have known nothing but war. These children have their lives shaped by violence, fear and displacement. This figure includes more than 151,000 children born as refugees since 2011.
The situation of children who fled the war are not necessarily better. For many, living conditions amount to slavery. Anti-slavery experts in Lebanon, where over 1.3 million Syrian refugees live, have warned that a growing number of Syrian children are being forced to work for little or no pay. Some Lebanese employers prefer to hire children, finding them cheaper and more obedient than adults.
With the continuation of the conflict, warring factions are in need of more recruits and children are often considered a viable source. Recruitment can take place anywhere. For instance, at one point, some recruitment used to take place in Jordan’s refugee camp. This has led to the establishment of security procedures to ensure that children are not returning to join the fight.
The need for recruits is not limited to the rebel groups that are fighting the government. Pro-government militias were also reported to recruit child soldiers. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that these militias used children from the age of 13 at checkpoints in Aleppo, Dara’a, and Tartus. In October 2013, in Ataman (Dara’a), children from the age of 14 were armed and trained by popular committees.
BEYOND THE FRONT LINES
Exploiting children for the war effort implies more than physical engagement. One example is using them in propaganda. Children frequently feature in IS media campaigns. The group has released videos of children between the ages of 10 and 15 participating in military training or executing people deemed “traitors.”
IS refers to the children fighting with them as the “Lion Cubs of the Caliphate” to emphasize their strength and potential military capability. Reference to these children is widespread in IS propaganda. They have become a central theme through which the group’s power and invincibility are projected. The brutality of using children in propaganda is used to shock the public and to control media attention.
These videos also suggest that children are being subjected to a systematic process of indoctrination and brainwashing. Unfortunately this is not limited to IS. Other extremist groups strive to fill the gaps in an education system that has been destroyed by the war, with radical teaching and indoctrination. This was one of the themes covered by the Vice News documentary “Inside the Battle: Al Nusra-Al Qaeda in Syria.” The film shows children being subjected to extreme ideological education and military training in various educational centres run by al-Nusra.
Children on Syria’s frontline is yet another tragic aspect of the crisis, and the continuation of the war, along with miserable living conditions, will keep children right in the eye of the storm.