Children Participating in Syria’s Armed Conflict

By Wissam al-Saliby*

The Syrian war has become one of the widest scale challenges to children’s rights. Recent global initiatives highlighted the need for mobilizing resources to provide education to hundreds of thousands of refugee and displaced children. In this post, I will highlight the issue of recruitment of children by armed groups and their use in war effort.

In a Skype call last Sunday, a social worker working in the opposition-held Al-Ghouta region near Damascus told me that the Islamist armed groups operating in that area are cautious not to recruit children under 18. However, this was not the case with the more extremist groups in other areas, he said. The worker added that in Al-Ghouta many children, relatives or sons of the group members, are assisting the armed groups in logistical tasks – preparing food, transportation, cleaning weapons, etc.

This conforms with the report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council (A/67/845–S/2013/245) issued on 15 May 2013:

Children, on average between 15 and 17 years of age, have been used in both combat and support roles, such as food and water portering and loading bullets into cartridges. A former Free Syrian Army combatant of Kafr Zeita village stated to the United Nations that children as young as 14 years were largely used for loading bullets, delivering food and evacuating the injured. Medical staff reported treating boys between 16 and 17 years of age injured in combat who were associated with the Free Syrian Army.

Lebanon was equally cited in the Secretary-General report:

The United Nations also received allegations of Syrian refugee children in border areas of Lebanon being pressured into joining armed groups in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Two weeks ago, a Palestinian friend in the Yarmouk camp in Syria shared with me over Skype an image of a poster posted 26 July 2013 announcing a training for 14 to 18 year-olds in combat, tactics and weaponry. This training, organized by a Palestinian Islamist group connected to the Free Syrian Army, is a blatant violation of children’s rights.

In the first half of September, a surreal story surfaced of 10-year old Issa, the “mechanic of the Free Syrian Army”. His photos repairing artillery and weaponry for the FSA were widely relayed over the internet.

In another surreal story, Pastor Joseph who heads the Baptist Children and Youth Ministries (BCYM), a sister ministry to IMES, told us last month that one of the 16 year-olds who took part this year in a BCYM camp in the Bekaa, Eastern Lebanon, had died in Syria during the summer, FIGHTING! It was a big surprise. He showed us his picture carrying weapons that he received in a message after his death. The teenager was a member of an armed group fighting in Syria.

What Does the Law Say?

In 2003, the Syrian government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The significance of this protocol is that, first, it clearly imposes obligations on armed groups (article 4), in addition to obligations on governmental forces (articles 1, 2 and 3). And second, it sets the age of recruitment at 18 for all (with the exception of voluntary recruitment in governmental forces).

Under the laws of armed conflict, it is not technically considered recruitment to provide military training or to give supporting roles to children as long as it does not amount to direct participation in hostilities or forced association. Nevertheless, under human rights law assigning such roles to children remains a direct violation of the rights of the child. (Resource: The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children)

A Three-Fold Approach to Ceasing Violations: Building Awareness, Lobbying and Prosecuting

Two initiatives aim at disseminating knowledge of International Humanitarian Law in Syria, including norms on protection of children in armed conflict. In the “Fighter Not Killer” initiative, the Swiss-based humanitarian organization Geneva Call produced Arabic materials to promote awareness of and respect for such international standards, and conducted trainings for some FSA groups (Arabic press release by the Syria Islamic Liberation Front following a training they received). The Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP) aims at educating non-state armed groups with knowledge of International Humanitarian Law, and equally conducted trainings for FSA.

The second approach is for States whose priority is respect for human rights to pressure Syrian armed groups and their backers (including Middle Eastern States) to strictly deny Syrian children from associating themselves with the groups.

The third approach is for the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. In the court’s statute, the definition of war crime includes conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities. Such referral will give the court a mandate over all the actions of all stakeholders on Syrian territories.

Churches and followers of Christ everywhere can find the 2nd and 3rd approaches to be a suitable for lobbying their governments for action, in order to protect Syria’s children. We have a moral obligation towards these children. Because Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16). And I’m sure he included 10-year old Issa, “mechanic of the FSA”, in his call.

2 children members of an armed group in Syria - photo taken by a Japanese journalist that he gave to me in Beirut

Two children members of an armed group in Syria; photo taken by a Japanese journalist and shared with me in Beirut.

* Wissam al-Saliby is the Partnerships Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. His previous IMES blog posts can be viewed here.

4 thoughts on “Children Participating in Syria’s Armed Conflict

  1. I have just had the privilege of listening to Martin’s lecture at the JPi conference where he speaks about injustice and reflecting God’s heart for mercy. As Christians we must always work for the resolution of injustice. My pastor agrees that the second and third approach in this article should be advocated and it’s the right thing for the church to respond, possibly by lobbying our government.

  2. This is so tragic. Today, in Austin, I met an elderly woman who didn’t speak any English. She was from Syria and left her home to live with her son in Texas. It struck me as so sad that she was so elated to meet some one who didn’t judge her for her heritage and was so happy to meet some one willing and able to listen to her. It’s so sad what’s happening around the world.

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