Child recruitment by SDF down significantly since 2019, UN says

NGO Fight for Humanity printed flyers and posters in Arabic and Kurdish explaining the 2019 SDF-UN action plan to prevent child recruitment. (Photo: Fight for Humanity)
NGO Fight for Humanity printed flyers and posters in Arabic and Kurdish explaining the 2019 SDF-UN action plan to prevent child recruitment. (Photo: Fight for Humanity)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) –  A recent United Nations report on children and armed conflict says that the recruitment of children by the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria fell significantly after the force signed a plan with the UN two years ago.

The third report on the situation of children and armed conflict in Syria covers the period from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2020.

The report says the recruitment of children by the SDF and its affiliated internal security forces (Asayish) decreased “in particular following the signature of a joint action plan with the United Nations in June 2019 to end and prevent child recruitment and use.” There were 41 cases of children being recruited in the first half of 2020, down from 216 in the first half in 2019, the report said.

“Since its signing, 160 cases have occurred, including 23 children under 15 years of age and 149 children serving in a combat role,” the report said. Most cases occurred in Raqqa (42 cases) and Manbij (40). 

The SDF agreed in the plan signed by the UN and SDF commander Mazlum Abdi to restrict the use anyone under the age of 18 in the armed forces.

In general, the recruitment and use of children continued to be widespread and systematic in Syria, the report said, with 1,423 verified cases (1,306 boys and 117 girls) in the reporting period. There were at least 25 parties using children in the conflict, including pro-Syrian government forces and non-government forces, the report said.

The UN said there was a significant increase in child recruitment by the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has links to al-Qaeda and controls most of the northwestern province of Idlib. HTS was responsible for 36 percent of all verified cases.

“Boys as young as 10 years of age were recruited from 11 different districts in Idlib, Aleppo and Hama, highlighting the common practice across areas held by the group,” the report said.

The report also said Turkey-backed armed opposition groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Nur al-Din al-Zanki, were responsible for 28 percent of all verified cases.

“Numbers remained consistently high, with 91 cases in the second half of 2018, 224 cases in 2019 and 79 cases in the first half of 2020,” the report said.

Armed opposition groups formerly known as the Free Syrian Army recruited three boys, who were “trafficked to Libya to participate in hostilities” there, according to the UN. 

However, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army banned child recruitment in May 2020. Virginia Gamba, the  Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, called on the SNA to engage with the UN to develop a joint action plan, like it previously signed with the SDF, in order to prevent child recruitment by all groups under its umbrella.

She added that the SDF’s signing of the action plan and its progress in ending child recruitment since then “are welcomed developments.”

Gamba urged the SDF to sustain its efforts and work with “child protection actors on a community-based approach for the reintegration of children, to adopt standard operating procedures on age assessment and exit procedures for further releases of children and to share necessary information with the United Nations.”

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly