Every major faction in Syria used child soldiers in 2020
Syria was one of the world's worst offenders for violations against children last year, alongside Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Yemen. The report noted that compared to 2019, global cases of abduction and sexual violence against children increased by 90 and 70 percent, respectively.
In total, 2,388 "grave violations" were committed against children in Syria last year, including kidnapping, killing, and maiming.
The number of child soldiers in Syria declined negligibly from the previous year, as 813 children were recruited in 2020 opposed to 837 in 2019.
Still, every major armed group in Syria used child soldiers, with radical militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) recruiting the highest number.
This was followed by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition groups, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Syrian regime forces and affiliated militias, and finally, various opposition groups affiliated with the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
HTS' continued use of child soldiers is unsurprising, given they have "established training camps for children, enrolled them in sharia courses in an effort to… direct them to take up arms and fight", the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said in a November 2020 report.
Further, the group launched recruitment campaigns specifically targeting impoverished Syrians in displacement camps in northwest Syria, many of whom are children.
In late March 2020, HTS-affiliated Telegram channels shared a stylised video of children - some of whom looked to be no older than 11 - hoisting rifles and participating in a training exercise. A HTS spokesperson disavowed the video, saying the group does not recruit children.
The SDF, while it continued to use child soldiers, recruited less than half of the number it did in 2019: 119 children in 2020, versus 283 in 2019. Starting in 2014, the SDF has signed multiple treaties with the UN and Swiss Humanitarian organisation Geneva Call to end the use of child soldiers, but has yet to fully abandon the practice.
In summer 2020, the group opened offices across northeast Syria to help crack down on child recruitment and demobilise child soldiers, but the practice has still continued in violation of its agreements with the UN.
The SDF is under particular scrutiny because of its relationship with the US, which backs the group militarily and politically. However, despite the spotlight and partnership with the UN Office of Children and Armed Conflict, child recruitment still continues.
In part this is due to the SDF's structure, which is made up of a confederation of smaller military groups, over which the SDF leadership exercises varying levels of control, making implementation of policies like the ban on child recruitment difficult.
In addition, the SDF was the highest offender for "depriving children of their liberty", accounting for almost 90 percent of all children put in detention in Syria last year.
In May 2020, the Turkish-backed SNA issued a ban on soldiers in its ranks aged under 18, but child recruitment still continues, as the UN and others noted.
A since-deleted report by Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in 2020 revealed that around 4 percent of those serving in SNA ranks were under the age of 18.
Rights groups have described active recruitment of children for Syrian regime forces and associated Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah militias in Damascus and its countryside. Regime forces and affiliated groups recruited children from impoverished areas and conscripted them sometimes without the permission or knowledge of their parents.
A May 2020 report by Syrians for Truth and Justice describes how one 16-year old child was recruited into a government-affiliated militia, seemingly to help his family survive after the death of his father in one of Syria's detention centres. Other testimonies describe religious indoctrination as a motive for many children enrolling in regime militias.