In many of the armed conflicts around the world, regular armies as well as militias deploy child soldiers; one reason is because they are easier to influence and to manipulate than adult fighters. Syria is no exception:
The report of the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch »Maybe we live, maybe we die«, published in June 2014, states that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS), or the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) tolerate and enforce the recruitment of children and young adults for use in combat.
Children have various functions and tasks within the army: as regular fighters or »only« as messengers or working on bases and checkpoints. The exact number of child soldiers in Syria is unknown—also because underage recruits are often not registered under their real age. However, the Violations Documenting Center, a Syrian organization that monitors and documents human rights violations, states that from September 2011 to May 2014 a total of one hundred ninety four male child soldiers lost their lives.
The boys and girls enter the military service in various ways. They become victims of kidnappings and forced combat; they are pressured by their family to join a militia or follow financial and material promises in emergency situations; others seem to join military groups voluntarily, often following manipulation and indoctrination. The data and interviews collected and published by Human Rights Watch show that many minors have been fighting for several armies and easily change sides. This leads to the conclusion that socio-economic reasons are essential for joining the various militias.
The report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic (2014), which is based on interviews held with (former) Syrian child soldiers and their parents, identifies the lack of education and employment as well as external pressure as the main causes for the recruitment of children and minors. The loss of parents and relatives and political mobilization furthermore worked as motivating forces for adolescents to join the oppositional groups. The report further states that the PYD had recruited numerous children out of refugee camps—thus explicitly exploiting their difficult living conditions.
For former child soldiers, it is particularly difficult to integrate back into society after an armed conflict has ended. The experience of extreme violence, trauma and years of ideological training, or rather brain-washing, as well as the fact, that most of the children usually did not complete school, contribute to a difficult reintegration.
Seventeen-year-old Saleh reports, that he started fighting for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the age of fifteen. He made this decision after he was detained and tortured by government forces. Later, he joined Ahrar al-Sham, but left them in order to enter service with Jund al-Aqsa, which is an independent Islamist group.
»I have often thought about leaving the fighting behind me,« he says. »I lost my education, I have lost my future, I lost everything. I looked for work, but there is none. This is the most difficult time for me.« (HRW 2014)