The experience of northeast Syria presents a challenge to end the use of children in conflict
DUBAI: Rawan Al-Aleku was visiting a friend in Debrassiye, northeast Syria, in the summer of 2020 when she was drafted into the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias formed in 2014 to fight Daesh. She was only 16 years old.
Telling Al-Aleku’s story, her Iraqi Kurdistan-based relative Farhad Osso, a human rights activist, told Arab News that the schoolgirl was indeed kidnapped after her friend’s mother kidnapped her. took her to the local Kurdish security office.
Al-Aleku found herself taken to a training camp for young conscripts, where she endured months of grueling military drills and political indoctrination. Throughout this time, according to Osso, she had no contact with her family.
As the weeks turned into months, Al-Aleku’s father, Omran, demanded his release with growing anger, which ultimately resulted in his arrest.
When he was released, he posted an open letter on Facebook calling for his daughter’s freedom.
“My case is one of abduction, the abduction of a child from his home, school and friends and childhood,” Omran wrote, speaking directly to SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum. Abdi, who had pledged a year earlier to end the practice of child recruitment.
“Those traitors kidnapped my daughter. I’ve been told that you stand by your commitment, so why do you apply the rules only where you see fit? You stole my past, my present and my future.
Al-Aleku’s story is not isolated to northeast Syria. When Daesh began seizing the territory in the summer of 2014, the SDF formed a multi-ethnic alliance that joined forces with the US-led coalition to retake the territory from the extremists. In the process, dozens of underage fighters were drawn into its ranks.
Prior to the 2011 Syrian uprising, Kurdish language and culture was suppressed by President Bashar Assad’s regime.
But when regime troops were withdrawn from Syria’s multi-ethnic north to quell the uprising elsewhere, the Kurds began to run their own affairs.
It was in 2014, with the emergence of Daesh, that the Kurds mobilized to defend their regained freedoms.
The Kurds of Syria have been hailed around the world for their sacrifices, which culminated in the final territorial defeat of Daesh in the city of Baghuz in March 2019.
Women in the ranks of the SDF were a particular source of inspiration, later portrayed as fearsome heroines in movies and even video games.
Rojava, the Kurdish-led autonomous region in northeast Syria, quickly became the epicenter of the wider Kurdish cause, wrapped in the revolutionary socialist zeal of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. neighbor.
Once the Daesh threat passed in Syria, many Rojava residents began to express reservations about the political aims of the main force within the SDF: the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
The YPG is the militia of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Syrian-Kurdish nationalist group linked to the PKK, which has waged decades-old guerrilla warfare against the Turkish state in pursuit of greater political and cultural rights for the Kurds in the southeast of the country.
According to an Atlantic Council report, to support the political and military efforts of the PYD in Syria, Kurds from Turkey, Iran and Iraq traveled to Syria to join the YPG.
Sources told Arab News that while some Syrian Kurds were drawn to the ideals of the PKK, others saw them as foreign and subversive.
As demand for SDF troops grew to repel militant attacks and later Turkish cross-border incursions — first into Afrin in 2018, then into northeast Syria in 2019 — SDF conscription quotas began to accommodate more and more underage fighters, according to the sources.
Osso says he and other human rights activists have documented more than 80 similar cases of minors forcibly recruited by the FDS.
Among them was a 15-year-old girl who disappeared in December 2021 in the border town of Kobani.
“Her parents received confirmation that she was there, but the Revolutionary Youth Movement refuses to return her,” Osso said, referring to the PKK-affiliated group that enlisted her.
“Generally, all the children who have been kidnapped in northern Syria have received military and combat training and, most importantly and most dangerously, the children are subjected to intense brainwashing, to such an extent that ‘they are told to forget their parents and where they come from,’ he added.
“The ideals of the PKK are all that matters. Parents are not allowed to have contact with their children during the course.
As the power and influence of the SDF increased during the war against Daesh, analysts say the influence of the PKK also increased, which had established a presence in northeast Syria around the same time. .
Thousands of its fighters came from the Qandil Mountains in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq to take advantage of the strategic opportunities opening up on the southern flank of their mortal enemy, Turkey.
Mountain comrades were often received with open arms, local groups relying on their discipline and battlefield experience.
Posters plastered all over Rojava’s towns depicting the “martyrs” of recent battles were always topped with the PKK dead, while the SDF and YPG dead appeared below. Many victims were not old enough to carry weapons.
The recruitment and use of children by armed groups is considered a serious violation of children’s rights and international humanitarian law.
In 2019, after being criticized for the continued recruitment of children by SDF factions, Abdi – himself a Syrian-Kurdish PKK veteran – signed a UN-supervised pledge on behalf of the Rojava administration to end this practice.
To uphold this commitment, the SDF created the Office for the Protection of Children from Armed Conflict, which has been credited with the demobilization and return of more than 200 children to their families.
But in November 2021, dozens of Kurdish families gathered outside the UN compound in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli, accusing the SDF of breaking their engagement.
Responding to the allegations, Farhad Shami, head of the SDF’s media centre, said reports of the continued recruitment of children are inaccurate and exaggerated.
“There are no enlisted individuals under the age of 18 in the SDF,” he told Arab News. “Conscription follows written laws and rules, which clearly state that no minors are allowed to join.”
Shami admits that the Revolutionary Youth Movement, an unarmed faction, recruits minors, but only with parental consent.
“We in the SDF confirm the implementation of all conditions should anyone wish to join our forces, the most important of which is the appropriate age requirement,” he said.
However, Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, told Arab News that “all armed forces of all factions in Syria are guilty” of recruiting child soldiers.
“The only difference is that the SDF signed a pledge with the UN in 2019 to end this practice, unlike the Syrian regime forces and the rebels,” he said.
“While the children were later returned to their parents, this phenomenon is far from over. There should be zero cases of child recruitment.
A report prepared by Syrians for Truth and Justice cites at least 17 cases of boys and girls recruited in the last three months of 2021, only one of whom was sent home. The fate of the others remains unknown.
A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights indicates that at least 156 fighters enlisted as children remain in the ranks of the SDF, and 19 were enlisted in November 2021 alone.
Wherever children have served in combat zones, the lasting damage to cognitive development and emotional well-being is well documented.
“It’s a heavy subject to talk about,” Alahmad said. “Unfortunately, children who have spent months in training camps are in dire need of psychological support – a service rarely provided at the moment.”
When Al-Aleku was finally returned to her family a year later, her character had changed dramatically, reshaped to fit the intense demands of military service and the duties of a loyal revolutionary.
“She was brainwashed with the communist ideals of the PKK and she was trained in the handling of weapons,” Osso said. “His parents were distraught.”