Meeting the child soldiers of Syria
Before the Syrian revolution became militarised, 16-year-old Hashem used to play a sniper game on his mobile phone. After his father was killed by a barrel bomb that hit their house in al-Shaar district [Ar] of Aleppo, the family moved to the Kilis refugee camp on the Turkish border.
Hashem repeatedly told his mother he wanted to return to Aleppo and fight to avenge his father's death. "Every time he mentioned it I would persuade him not to go until one day I woke up and he had disappeared," said his mother. Two days later a relative called her from Aleppo saying Hashem had joined an armed group. "I went to bring him back but he refused to come," she added.
Now Hashem is playing his favourite sniper game in real life, as he carries a heavy rifle and hides behind walls on the frontline. Hashem is not alone - every group in Syria is recruiting children.
Forty percent of recruits for the Popular Committees are reportedly under 18.
"The Syrian regime recruits many children," said Abd al-Fattah Qassim, an activist documenting the regime's human rights violations on behalf of the Hurriyat rights group.
He said the regime formed the National Defence Force in November 2012 to recruit fighters to replace soldiers defecting from the state army. The National Defence Force accepted anyone, including those under 18, he said, adding that many would then be sent to Iran for a 20-day training course.
The Popular Committees - also known as the Lijan militias - are neighbourhood vigilante groups in Syria, reportedly funded by the government. As many as 40 percent of recruits are under 18, the activist said.
Sixteen year-old Ahmed joined the Popular Committee militia in the Qusour area of Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria. He was killed fighting the Authenticity and Development Front, an alliance of Islamist groups, less than a month after joining, according to his mother.
"We did not want him to volunteer, but they took advantage of our poor economic situation and persuaded him with money," she said.
His body lay on the street for a month and a half because of snipers, until his family could eventually bury his remains on the side of the road.
The cubs of the Caliphate
The Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) in the Syrian city of Raqqa recruits children by paying money to their families in a governorate suffering from widespread poverty. The children are then sent on "cubs' courses" at training camps.
Sometimes children are recruited without their parents' consent. This happened to Mahmoud Hammadi al-Ibrahim, according to the Raqqan activist Abu Ibrahim. On 14 May, 13-year-old Mahmoud disappeared and his family searched for him everywhere until he was found in the IS al-Sharakrak training camp. Initially the leader of the camp denied the child was there, but after further efforts by his family, the boy was eventually returned to them, Abu Ibrahim explained.
Abu Ibrahim said there were a number of well-known IS camps in Raqqa, northern Syria, specialised in training children. Al-Zarqawi Camp, the Osama Bin Laden Camp, the Religious Cubs' Camp for those under 16, al-Sharakrak Camp and the Vanguards' Camp all reportedly provide instruction and indoctrination for under 18s.
He said that during periods of intense fighting, children attended an accelerated religious course, followed by a 45-day military training course before being sent to the battlefield. However, during calmer times, children attended a 45-day religious course followed by a three-month military training course.
Everyone in Syria is recruiting children, according to rights activist Ahmed Kanjo. He told al-Araby al-Jadeed there were many under-18s fighting for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish national army, and the Ashayish Forces, a Kurdistan security organisation, in the Syrian cities of Qamishli and Afrin. This includes girls who are sometimes used to conduct surveillance and non-combat duties.
Bassam al-Ahmed, spokesperson for The Violation Documentation Centre in Syria, agreed. "YPG forces have recruited dozens of children, even though internal statutes and laws regulating the Kurdish police and military forces ban the recruitment of children under 18," he said.
Lack of statistics
The Syrian Violation Documentation Centre has recorded the deaths of 227 children recruited by different armed groups. This does not include children who have died fighting for the regime's forces - a number estimated by the centre to also be in the hundreds.
Ahmed said there were no accurate figures detailing the number of child soldiers fighting for Syrian armed groups. "Children are used to fight or staff checkpoints, conduct surveillance, work as messengers or informants, treat the wounded and transport ammunition and other supplies to the front lines," he explained.
International human rights law forbids armed groups from recruiting children as fighters.
International human rights law forbids government and non-governmental armed groups alike from recruiting children as fighters or allowing them to help out on battlefields. The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Syria in 2003, set 18 as the minimum age for directly participating in hostilities.
It also bans the recruitment of anyone under 15. In addition, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court considers "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" to be a war crime.
Armed factions respond
Responded to allegations that they recruit child soldiers, a commander of one of the armed factions in Jabal al-Zawiya who wished to remain anonymous, said they did not force anyone to fight for them.
"Sometimes a father will enlist their child, or children will join by themselves if their parents have been martyred," he told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "If we accept teenagers under 18 they can only work in a technical or media-related position."
Khuta Media has broadcast scenes of children being trained at the Cubs of Tawhid camp belonging to the Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis ["Defenders of Jerusalem"] group in Ghouta, east Damascus. The group said the camp teaches children to defend themselves and does not force anyone to train there.
"The children learn the basics to help them survive in an open war environment," said the group.
This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.