Northeast Syria’s experience signifies challenge of ending use of children in conflicts

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Demonstrators call for the release of young girls they say were abducted into fighting for the YPG. (AFP)
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SDF fighters take part in a military parade in the US-protected Al-Omar oil field in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on March 23, 2021. (AFP file)
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Demonstrators call for the release of young girls they say were abducted into fighting for the YPG. (AFP)
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Updated 27 January 2022

Northeast Syria’s experience signifies challenge of ending use of children in conflicts

  • Recruitment and use of children by armed forces is a serious violation of child rights and international humanitarian law
  • Kurdish-led SDF faces criticism for continued recruitment of underaged fighters despite 2019 pledge to end the practice

DUBAI: Rawan Al-Aleku was visiting a friend in Debrassiye, in northeast Syria, in the summer of 2020 when she was conscripted by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias raised in 2014 to fight Daesh. She was just 16 years old.

Narrating Al-Aleku’s story, her Iraqi Kurdistan-based relative Farhad Osso, a human rights activist, told Arab News that the schoolgirl had effectively been kidnapped after her friend’s mother took her to the local Kurdish security office.

Al-Aleku found herself whisked away to a boot camp for young conscripts, where she underwent months of grueling military drills and political indoctrination. All the while, according to Osso, she had no contact with her family.




Rawan Al-Aleku, who was returned to her family one year after her recruitment at age 16. (Supplied)

As the weeks turned into months, Al-Aleku’s father Omran made increasingly angry demands for her release, eventually resulting in his arrest.

When he was released, he published an open letter on Facebook demanding his daughter’s freedom.

“My case is that of kidnapping, the kidnap of a child from her home, her school and her friends and her childhood,” Omran wrote, appealing directly to the SDF’s Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi, who had one year earlier pledged to end the practice of child recruitment.

“These traitors kidnapped my daughter. I have been told you are following through with your pledge, so why is it you apply the rules only where you deem fit? You stole my past, present and future.”

Al-Aleku’s story is not an isolated one in northeast Syria. When Daesh began seizing territory in the summer of 2014, the SDF raised a multi-ethnic alliance that teamed up with the US-led coalition to retake territory from the extremists. In the process, scores of under-aged fighters were swept into its ranks.

Before the Syrian uprising of 2011, Kurdish language and culture were suppressed by the regime of President Bashar Assad.

But when regime troops were withdrawn from Syria’s multi-ethnic north to quell the uprising elsewhere, the Kurds began to manage their own affairs.

It was in 2014, with the emergence of Daesh, that the Kurds mobilized to defend their newfound freedoms.

Syria’s Kurds won global praise for their sacrifices, which resulted in the final territorial defeat of Daesh in the town of Baghuz in March 2019.

The women in the SDF’s ranks were a particular source of inspiration, later depicted as fearsome heroines in movies and even video games.




The women in the SDF’s ranks were a particular source of inspiration. (AFP file photo)

Rojava, the Kurdish-led autonomous region of northeast Syria, quickly became an epicenter for the broader Kurdish cause, wrapped in the revolutionary socialist zeal of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, of neighboring Turkey.

Once the Daesh threat had receded in Syria, many living in Rojava 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 a decades-old guerrilla war against the Turkish state in pursuit of greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in the country’s southeast.

According to a report by the Atlantic Council, to support the PYD’s political and military efforts in Syria, Kurds from Turkey, Iran and Iraq have traveled to Syria to join with the YPG.

FASTFACTS

The recruitment and use of children by armed forces or groups is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.

Sources told Arab News that while some Syrian Kurds were drawn to the PKK’s ideals, others viewed them as foreign and subversive.

As the SDF’s demand for troops increased to fend off militant attacks and later Turkish cross-border incursions — first in Afrin in 2018, then in northeast Syria in 2019 — SDF conscription quotas began to taken in more and more under-aged fighters, according to the sources.

Osso says he and fellow human rights activists have documented more than 80 similar cases of minors being forcibly conscripted by the SDF.




Among the female fighters in the SDF, human rights activists have found cases of teenage girls being forcibly conscripted. (AFP)

Among them was a 15-year-old girl who disappeared in December 2021 in the border town of Kobane.

“Her parents received confirmation she was there, but the Revolutionary Youth Movement refuses to give her back,” Osso said, referring to the PKK-affiliated group that conscripted her.

“Generally, all kids who were kidnapped in northern Syria received military and combat training and, most importantly and most dangerously, the kids are subjected to an intense brainwashing, to an extent where they’re told to forget their parents and where they came from,” he added.

“PKK ideals are all that matters. Parents aren’t allowed to have any contact with their children during the time of training.”

As the SDF’s power and influence grew over the course of the war against Daesh, analysts say, so too did the influence of the PKK, which had established a presence in Syria’s northeast at around the same time.




Syrian Kurdish troops march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on April 22, 2021. (AFP)

Thousands of its fighters moved in from the Qandil Mountains of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region to take advantage of the strategic opportunities opening up on the southern flank of their mortal foe Turkey.

The comrades from the mountains were often received with open arms, with local groups deferring to their discipline and battlefield experience.

Posters plastered throughout Rojava towns depicting the “martyrs” of recent battles were always topped with the PKK’s fallen, while the SDF’s and YPG’s dead appeared below. Many of the casualties were not old enough to be carrying weapons.

The recruitment and use of children by armed groups is considered a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.

In 2019, having faced criticism for the continued recruitment of children by SDF factions, Abdi — himself a Syrian-Kurdish veteran of the PKK — signed a UN-supervised pledge on behalf of the Rojava administration to end the practice.




Mazloum signed a pledge against child recruitment in 2019. (Supplied)

To enforce this commitment, the SDF established the Office of Child Protection from Armed Conflict, which has been credited with demobilizing and returning more than 200 children to their families.

But in November 2021, dozens of Kurdish families gathered outside the UN compound in the city of Qamishli, in northern Syria, accusing the SDF of breaking its pledge.

Responding to the allegations, Farhad Shami, head of the SDF’s media center, said reports of ongoing child recruitment are inaccurate and exaggerated.

“There are no conscripted individuals under the age of 18 years old in the SDF,” he told Arab News. “Conscription abides by the written laws and rules, which clearly state no minors are allowed to join.”

Shami concedes that the Revolutionary Youth Movement, an unarmed faction, does recruit minors, but only with parental consent.




Among the female fighters in the SDF, human rights activists have found cases of teenage girls being forcibly conscripted. (AFP)

“We, in the SDF, confirm the implementation of all the conditions in the event that anyone wishes 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 from 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 stop the practice, unlike the Syrian regime forces and the rebels,” he said.

“While children were returned to their parents after that, this phenomenon is far from over. There should be zero cases of child recruitment.”




SDF fighters stand guard as displaced people prepare to board a bus on their way home at the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria's Al-Hasakeh governorate on June 3, 2019. (AFP file)

A report prepared by Syrians for Truth and Justice cites at least 17 cases of boys and girls being recruited during the last three months of 2021, only one of whom has been returned home. The fate of the others remains unknown.

A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights said at least 156 fighters conscripted as children remain in SDF ranks, and 19 were conscripted in November 2021 alone.

Wherever children have served in combat zones, the lasting damage to cognitive development and emotional wellbeing is well documented.




The lasting damage to cognitive development and emotional wellbeing of children who have served in combat zones is well documented. (AFP file photo)

“This is a heavy subject to tackle,” said Alahmad. “Unfortunately, the kids who 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 one year later, her character had changed dramatically, remolded to fit the intense demands of soldiering and the duties of a loyal revolutionary.

“She was brainwashed with the communist ideals of the PKK and she was trained in weaponry,” Osso said. “Her parents were distraught.”


Israeli troops kill another unarmed Palestinian

Updated 19 August 2022

Israeli troops kill another unarmed Palestinian

  • Anger in West Bank after man, 58, is shot on his way home from morning prayers

RAMALLAH, West Bank: There was growing outrage in the occupied West Bank on Friday after Israeli troops killed another unarmed Palestinian man.

Saleh Sawafta, 58, was returning from dawn prayers at a mosque near his home in Tubas when he was shot in the head. Doctors fought to save his life, but Sawafta died from “critical wounds.”

The victim, who had been preparing for his daughter’s wedding next week — was not involved in previous clashes with Israeli forces and was not a target for arrest.

His death brought the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since the beginning of the year to 135.

Hundreds of people attended Sawafta’s funeral on Friday afternoon as anger spread in the city.

Opinion

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Tubas Governor Maj. Gen. Younis Al-Assi accused the Israeli army of using “excessive and unjustified force” against Palestinian citizens, and of shooting to kill.

He told Arab News that the Israeli army’s policy of killing, wounding and arresting Palestinian citizens was the main contributor to the “industry of terrorism,” and influenced young people to seek revenge for the deaths and assaults.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said that the armed forces of the Israeli occupation would continue their “terrorism” unless the international community stopped displaying double standards over international law.

“As long as they can act with impunity, the crime continues in the absence of punishment. Children, women and the elderly are victims of the terror of the occupation in every city, village and camp,” the prime minister said.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Sawafta’s killing was “part of a series of daily crimes committed by the Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian citizens,” and said the army was acting on instructions from Israeli politicians.


US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

Updated 19 August 2022

US says ‘concerned’ by Israeli closure of Palestinian NGOs

  • Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel
  • The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group

WASHINGTON: Washington said Thursday it was “concerned” by the Israeli government’s forced closure of several Palestinian NGOs operating in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli military announced earlier in the day that it had conducted overnight raids of seven organizations in Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters are located.
Six of the Palestinian organizations were labeled last October as terrorist organizations by Israel for their alleged links to the leftist militant group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), though Israeli officials have not publicly shared any evidence of the links.
The NGOs have all denied any links to the PFLP, which many western nations have designated a terrorist group.
“We are concerned about the Israeli security forces’ closure of the six offices of the Palestinian NGOs in and around Ramallah today,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price at a press briefing.
“We have not changed our position or approach to these organizations,” said Price, though he noted that Washington does not fund any of them.
“We have seen nothing in recent months to change (our position)” he added.
US officials have reached out to their Israeli counterparts “at the senior level” to obtain additional information, which Israel has promised to provide, according to Price.
The seventh organization raided by Israel on Thursday, the Union of Health Work Committees, was banned by Israel from working in the West Bank in 2020.


Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

Updated 19 August 2022

Israel announces plan to boost Gaza work permits

  • A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday

JERUSALEM: Israel said Friday it plans to grant more work permits to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza, reviving a pledge made ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden but later scrapped.
A further 1,500 people from the impoverished and overcrowded Gaza Strip would be allowed to work in Israel from Sunday, the military said in a statement.
“The decision will take effect ... on condition that the security situation remains quiet in the area,” said COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories.
The move to boost to 15,500 the total number of work permits was initially announced on July 12, on the eve of Biden’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But it was scrapped four days later, in the wake of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory strikes by Israeli warplanes.
The work permits provide vital income to some of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, who have been living under a strict blockade imposed by Israel since the Islamist movement Hamas seized power in 2007.
Friday’s announcement follows three days of fighting this month between Islamic Jihad militants and Israel.
At least 49 Gazans were killed and hundreds wounded, according to figures from the enclave’s health ministry.
The plan to issue additional permits follows a decision by Hamas largely to stay out of the recent fighting.


Market blast in north Syria kills 19 people, wounds dozens

Updated 20 August 2022

Market blast in north Syria kills 19 people, wounds dozens

  • Assad regime shelling hits busy market in rebel-held Aleppo town, says monitor
  • The attack on the town of Al-Bab came days after a Turkish airstrike killed at least 11 Syrian troops and US-backed Kurdish fighters

JEDDAH: At least 19 civilians were killed in northern Syria on Friday in an upsurge in violence along the border with Turkey.

Artillery fire by Assad regime forces hit a busy market in the border town of Al-Bab, which is under the authority of Turkish-controlled Syrian fighters, killing 15 people.

In the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria, four children were killed and 11 were injured in a Turkish strike on a rehabilitation centre for girls near the city of Hasakeh.

The new bloodshed comes against a backdrop of increased tensions pitting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the regime against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor in Britain that has a network of sources in Syria, said the shelling that hit Al-Bab originated from Assad regime positions. A spokesman for the SDF denied any involvement.

The strike ripped through the market area and witnesses described a jumble of body parts, strewn vegetables and mangled handcarts.

BACKGROUND

The new bloodshed comes against a backdrop of increased tensions pitting Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the regime against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies.

Violence between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds escalated this week with a deadly Turkish strike killing 17 regime and Kurdish fighters in retaliation for Kurdish fire inside Turkey.

Ankara considers the main Kurdish component of the SDF — allied with the US against Daesh militants —to be a terrorist organisation with links to the outlawed PKK.

The warring factions in Syria's 11-year conflict have carved up the north into a patchwork of zones of control. Al-Bab is within the areas of Aleppo province held by Turkish-backed rebels. Other parts are held by Assad regime troops backed by Russia.

The SDF, spearheaded by Kurdish groups who have opened a dialogue with the regime in Damascus, also control parts of the north and northeast.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened a new military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria, but has failed to obtain a green light from allies Iran and Russia.

Erdogan insisted on Friday that Turkey did not intend to seize any Syrian territory despite stepping up its attacks against Kurdish forces.

“We do not have eyes on the territory of Syria because the people of Syria are our brothers,” Erdogan said. “The regime must be aware of this.”

But he also hinted that Turkey may be open to a reproachment with Assad after fiercely opposing his regime.“There should be no resentment in politics,” he said.


Deadly wildfires contained in Algeria after homes, livelihoods lost

Updated 19 August 2022

Deadly wildfires contained in Algeria after homes, livelihoods lost

  • Justice Ministry launches inquiry after interior minister suggests some of this year’s blazes were started deliberately

ALGIERS: Wildfires which killed at least 38 people across northern Algeria have been contained, firefighters said Friday, as volunteers mobilized to help those who lost homes and livelihoods in the tragedy.

“All of the fires have been completely brought under control,” said fire brigade Col. Farouk Achour, of the civil defense department.
Fierce fires have become an annual fixture in Algeria’s parched forests where climate change exacerbates a long-running drought.
Since the beginning of August, almost 150 blazes have devastated hundreds of hectares.

BACKGROUND

Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Algeria, which has more than four million hectares of forest.

In the badly hit region of El Tarf, farmers examined the charred remains of their animals killed when flames swept through the area.
The fire “didn’t spare anything,” said one farmer, Hamdi Gemidi, 40, who walked in rubber sandals on the ash-covered earth where the carcasses of what appeared to be sheep lay.

An elderly Algerian woman reacts inside the ruins of her home. (AFP)

“This is our livelihood ... We have nowhere to go and nothing to make a living from.”
Ghazala, 81, said she had been rescued along with a few animals after flames came dangerously close to her house.
“I don’t know where to go now. Should I stay in the fields, forests or mountains?” she asked, on the verge of tears.
“I really don’t know where I should go.”
The Justice Ministry launched an inquiry after Interior Minister Kamel Beldjoud suggested some of this year’s blazes were started deliberately, and authorities on Thursday announced four arrests of suspected arsonists.
But officials have also been accused of a lack of preparation, with few firefighting aircraft available despite record casualties in last year’s blazes and a cash windfall from gas exports with global energy prices soaring.
Authorities said they deployed more than 1,700 firefighters over Wednesday and Thursday.
The dead included more than 10 children and a similar number of firefighters, according to multiple sources including local journalists and the fire service.
Most were in the El Tarf region near Algeria’s eastern border with Tunisia, an area which was sweltering earlier this week in 48 degree Celsius heat.
Algerians both at home and in the diaspora have mobilized to collect clothing, medicines and food to help those affected.
Late on Thursday, dozens of trucks carrying humanitarian aid from various cities arrived in El Tarf, regional authorities said.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also offered support to Algerians “hard-hit by the terrible fires.”
Writing on Twitter, he said: “The EU stands by your side in these difficult times.”
Twelve people burned to death in their bus as they tried to escape when fire ripped through an animal park, a witness who asked not to be named said.
When “nobody came to help us, neither the fire service nor anyone else,” park staff assisted families with young children to escape as flames encroached on the area, Takeddine, a worker at the park, said.
Fires last year killed at least 90 people and seared 100,000 hectares of forest and farmland in the country’s north.
Experts have called for a major effort to bolster the firefighting capacity of Algeria, which has more than 4 million hectares of forest.
Algeria had agreed to buy seven firefighting aircraft from Spanish firm Plysa, but canceled the contract following a diplomatic row over the Western Sahara in late June, according to specialist website Mena Defense.
Spain, too, has this year battled hundreds of wildfires following punishing heat waves and long dry spells.
On Thursday, Algeria’s Prime Minister Aimene Benabderrahmane defended the government’s response.
He said his country had ordered four new firefighting aircraft but they would not be available until December.
The prime minister added that strong winds had exacerbated the fires and authorities deployed “all their means” to extinguish them.

 

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