A report released earlier this summer shows the depths to which the fighting in Syria has fallen. According to the Official Website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 50 child soldiers recruited by the Islamic State and who were all below the age of 16 years have died so far this year in Syria. The recruitment program, known as "cubs of the caliphate" recruits children between the ages of 10 to 15 years of age to fight with their older ISIS counterparts. As if this weren't enough, ISIS has released a booklet entitled "Sister's Role in Jihad" that provides instructions for women on raising mujahid children suggesting that mothers should introduce their children to target shooting at a young age.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Islamic State is believed to have recruited more than 1100 children since the beginning of 2015. The child recruits are taught how to approach and enter a property, subdue and remove an occupant and how to use the captive as a hostage. As well, they are taught how to ambush a moving vehicle and receive training as snipers and suicide bombers. Since hundreds of the children have arrived from foreign nations throughout Europe and South Asia, they are enrolled in religious schools, two of which cater to English speakers. Children are initially lured through a process of gradual socialization through attendance at public events where they are treated with free toys and candy. Children are also encouraged to attend and watch public executions, learning exactly what infractions will result in the ultimate form of corporal punishment as shown in this video:
The Islamic State does not view these young soldiers as being useful for their propaganda value, they are viewed as fully qualified fighters who can and will kill their enemies. The children fall into five categories:
1.) those who were abandoned and ended up in ISIS-controlled orphanages.
2.) those who were taken by coercion from their parents.
3.) those who were born to foreign fighters.
4.) those who were born to local fighters.
5.) those who voluntarily joined the Islamic State.
This pattern of recruitment is much different than the recruitment of child soldiers in other parts of the globe, mainly Africa. In those cases, most of the children are orphans or are abducted and the militants act as their family.
Much of ISIS' recruitment strategy falls under the guise of "education" as we can see in this video which looks like a typical classroom that could be found in many parts of the developing world:
In many parts of Syria, the government-run education system has collapsed. Where ISIS has taken over control of the educational and religious infrastructure, they have an opportunity to teach their ISIS-based curriculum to gender-segregated classes. Younger children are groomed as spies and are encouraged to report on family members and neighbours who criticize ISIS. As they get older, a select number will make it to the "Cubs Club" where they will receive intense military-style training. All of the experiences that child soldiers receive under the tutelage of older members of ISIS are designed to generate a sense of camaraderie and loyalty.
The actual number of child soldiers fighting in Syria is unknown, however the Violations Documentation Center in Syria had documented the deaths of 194 non-civilian male children in Syria between September 2011 and June 2014.
It is important to note that, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, as early as November 2012, boys as young as 14 years of age were used in support roles for the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella term for the armed groups that are fighting against Syrian government troops. Children were also used by the YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units) military and Asayish police forces in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria in their fight against ISIS. Some children are paid for their efforts, receiving a monthly salary in the range of USD100 per month. Unfortunately, the children who wish to leave armed groups and resume a civilian life are given little opportunity to do so.
In the interest of balance, a report from al-Araby states that the Syrian regime also recruits children. The National Defence Force which was formed to recruit fighters to replace the soldiers defecting from Assad's Syrian Arab Army also accepts fighters under the age of 18. The Popular Committees also known as the al-Lijan Militias (People's Committees) who were formed to support the Assad regime started out as neighbourhood vigilante groups in major Syrian cities. They were armed by the Assad regime and add another layer of protection for the current government. Reportedly, as many as 40 percent of the recruits in al-Lijan are under the age of 18 years.
Conscripting or enlisting children as either fighters or in support roles is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As well, the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has set 19 as the minimum age for directly participating in hostilities and 15 as the minimum age for recruitment as shown in these statements:
"Noting the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in particular, the inclusion therein as a war crime, of conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years or using them to participate actively in hostilities in both international and non-international armed conflict…
Noting that the twenty-sixth International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 1995 recommended, inter alia, that parties to conflict take every feasible step to ensure that children below the age of 18 years do not take part in hostilities…"
This Protocol was ratified by Syria in 2003 as shown on this table:
With this information in mind, is it any wonder that millions of Syrian families have fled their homes? Most parents would rather face an uncertain economic future than face the possibility that their children could be recruited to fight on either side of an unwinnable and brutal conflict.