It Only Gets Worse: Syrian Opposition Groups Recruiting Children

The Syrian crisis only continues to get worse. On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report detailing the use of children in active and support roles in opposition forces in Syria. From the ill-defined Free Syrian Army to the now-notorious ISIS, this problem isn’t confined by ideology or ethnicity.

But, this isn’t simply a problem of bad men stealing children in the night and handing them weapons. While it’s a bit of a breather that ISIS and FSA haven’t quite resorted to Lord’s Resistance Army type tactics, a tangled web of children’s interests merged with the interests of opposition group leaders has made this issue all the more difficult to resolve. As HRW reports:

Three commanders of various FSA units told Human Rights Watch that their units did not accept children under 18 as a matter of official policy, but did not turn them away when they came to them eager to fight. “16, 17 is not young. [If we don’t take him,] he’ll go fight on his own,” Abu Rida, leader of the Saif Allah al-Maslool brigade, an FSA group in Daraa, said.

For the opposition forces, it’s hard to turn down additional soldiers. Even if those soldiers are fifteen. Remember, the Syrian Civil War is still largely an asymmetrical conflict. While Assad has been discredited on the international stage, he is still in firm control over the vast majority of Syria’s military hardware. Due in large part to Assad’s control over the Syrian air force, opposition forces have been unable to gain much ground.

The children, too, have some interest in joining with the opposition groups. Be it revenge for torture suffered at the hands of Assad’s forces (as reported by some children in the report), the security of a monthly pay check (between $100 and $135 USD), or protection from the anarchy that largely rules Syria, Syrian children and teenage boys have real incentives to join up with these forces.

By no means does the existence of incentives make the recruitment or even passive acceptance of child soldiers acceptable – it only makes things more complicated. War undoubtedly has a negative impact on children, and, as HRW puts it, “children who [wish] to leave armed groups and resume a civilian life…[have] few options to do so.” When they return to a civilian life, these children find their futures looking incredibly bleak, with their studies left abandoned, and the Syrian job market largely nonexistent in post-conflict zones, these children are often left with nowhere to turn but back to the militias.

So what is the solution? Human Rights Watch suggests a series of public commitments by Syrian opposition groups against the recruitment of child soldiers and the reference of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court to begin the proceedings for charges of war crimes. Unfortunately, HRW focuses solely on passive measures to achieve these goals. While public commitments are a great way to encourage action, they are also meaningless without real incentives for change and expectations of accountability from both the international community and opposition groups. Perhaps the strongest suggestion of HRW comes from their recommendation to governments providing aid to armed groups in Syria to suspend any and all military aid and training to groups that recruit children.  At the very least, using foreign governments as leverage is the most realistic policy option and a decent start.

Unfortunately, these problems are nowhere near solved. As the crisis in Syria continues to implode in on itself, these seemingly smaller injustices – the recruitment of child soldiers,  sexual violence used as a weapon of war – inevitably get lost by the news media and the policymakers. In the end, maybe the grim realism of 14 year old Syrian fighter Omar will help cement this story for you: “Maybe we’ll live, and maybe we’ll die.”


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