Syrian Rebels Recruiting Child Soldiers, Rights Group Says

Children lured in with promise of education, sent on dangerous tasks including suicide bombings, report says; exact number of children fighting with militants unknown.

Children play in the Sheikh Maksoud area of Aleppo, Syria, May 14, 2014. Reuters

DPA - Armed groups in Syria have used children as young as 15 to fight in that country's civil war, charged U.S.-based Human Rights Watch Monday.

The report said that children were sometimes recruited under the guise of being offered an education. "The groups have used children as young as 14 in support roles. Extremist Islamist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have specifically recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions," the report said.

The 31-page HRW report titled "Maybe We live and Maybe We Die" also documents the experiences of 25 children and former child soldiers in Syria's armed conflict. The rights group interviewed children who fought with the Free Syrian Army; the Islamic Front coalition; the extremist groups ISIS and al-Nusra Front; as well as the military and police forces in Kurdish-controlled areas. Some of them fought in battles, acting as snipers, manning checkpoints, spying on hostile forces, treating the wounded on battlefields and ferrying ammunition and other supplies to front lines while fighting raged.

"Syrian armed groups shouldn't prey on vulnerable children - who have seen their relatives killed, schools shelled, and communities destroyed - by enlisting them in their forces," said Priyanka Motaparthy, Middle East children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

According to the report, the exact number of children fighting with armed groups in Syria is not known. But it said that, by June 2014, the Violations Documenting Centre, a Syrian monitoring group, had documented 194 deaths of "non-civilian" male children in Syria since September 2011.

A 16-year-old boy said that the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front in the southern province of Daraa recruited him and other boys by providing free schooling at a local mosque that included military training and target practice. He said that commanders asked children as well as adults to sign up for suicide attacks. "Sometimes fighters volunteered, and sometimes (commanders) said, 'Allah (God) chose you.'"

Former recruits described how leaders gave children particularly difficult or dangerous tasks and encouraged them to volunteer for suicide attacks, the report stated.

"Amr," who fought with the al-Qaida splinter group ISIS in northern Syria when he was 15, said that his unit leaders encouraged him and others to volunteer for suicide attacks. He said he signed up reluctantly but was able to get away before his turn came up.

The report said that armed groups affiliated with Syria's main opposition body, the National Coalition, have taken steps to end the use of children in the conflict.
In June, a Kurdish military leader announced that his group had also demobilized all fighters under 18 within a month. "All armed groups in Syria should make a public commitment to ban the recruitment and use of children and to demobilize all fighters or helpers under 18 in their forces," Human Rights Watch stated.

HRW also called on governments and individuals providing aid to Syrian armed groups to review these groups' policies on child recruitment and urge them to ban the use of children, and to verify recruits' ages.