Human Rights Watch today accused the Syrian opposition of using young boys to serve as fighters, guards and lookouts in the brutal conflict with regime forces. “Children as young as 14 have served in at least three opposition brigades, transporting weapons and supplies and acting as lookouts,” the New York-based watchdog said. “Children as young as 16 have carried arms and taken combat roles against government forces.” It called on rebel commanders to make public commitments to end this practice and to forbid anyone under 18 from serving in military roles, regardless of whether they volunteer.
“All eyes are on the Syrian opposition to prove they’re trying to protect children from bullets and bombs, rather than placing them in danger,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. HRW interviewed five boys between 14 and 16 who said they had worked with the armed opposition. “Majid,” a 16-year-old boy from Homs, told HRW that he received combat training and had participated in missions in Syria along with his older brother. “The job you have depends on you,” he said. “If you have a brave heart, they’ll send you to fight checkpoints.” “Haitham” and “Qassim,” two sixteen-year-old boys from Daraa province currently living in Jordan, said they had voluntarily joined a local brigade.
“(The Free Syrian Army) is accepting people from 16 and up,” Haitham said. “Raed,” 14, transported weapons and other supplies for rebels across the Turkish border at their request. “All of the kids were helping like this,” he said.
At least 17 children have been killed while fighting alongside the FSA, according to the Syria Violations Documenting Centre, an opposition monitoring group. Many others have been severely wounded and some permanently disabled.
In August, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report in which it expressed concern over reports of children under 18 fighting and performing auxiliary roles for opposition groups.
“The commission received assurances from (FSA chief) Colonel Riad al-Asaad that an FSA policy not to use children in combat is in place. There is evidence to suggest, however, that this policy is not uniformly being adhered to by the FSA and other anti-Government armed groups,” it said.
HRW found that refugee boys in neighbouring countries remain vulnerable to recruitment and participation under pressure from older men, including FSA fighters on leave. “We’ve watched men urge boys to support the FSA and join the fight,” Motaparthy said.
“Particularly when their older family members fight with armed opposition groups, or have been killed by regime forces, boys can face pressure to pick up weapons and fight back, sometimes even at very young ages.”