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.”


Amnesty demands FIFA pay $440m to Qatar’s ‘abused migrant workers’

Updated 19 sec ago

Amnesty demands FIFA pay $440m to Qatar’s ‘abused migrant workers’

  • Amnesty described $440 million as “minimum necessary” to cover compensation claims
  • The sum is roughly the total prize money for this year’s World Cup

LONDON: Rights group Amnesty International on Thursday urged football’s governing body FIFA pay compensation equal to the total 2022 World Cup prize money for migrant workers “abused” in host nation Qatar.
The call, backed by other rights organizations and fan groups, follows allegations that FIFA was slow to safeguard against the exploitation of workers who flooded into the tiny Gulf state to build infrastructure in the years leading up to the tournament that starts November 21.
“FIFA should earmark at least $440 million to provide remedy for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have suffered human rights abuses in Qatar during preparations for the 2022 World Cup,” Amnesty said in a statement accompanying a report.
The London-based group urged FIFA president Gianni Infantino “to work with Qatar to establish a comprehensive remediation program.”
It alleged that a “litany of abuses” had taken place since 2010, the year FIFA awarded the 2022 tournament to Qatar “without requiring any improvement in labor protections.”
“Given the history of human rights abuses in the country, FIFA knew — or should have known — the obvious risks to workers when it awarded the tournament to Qatar,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general.
Amnesty said some abuses persist and described $440 million as the “minimum necessary” to cover compensation claims and to ensure remedial initiatives are expanded for the future.
The sum is roughly the total prize money for this year’s World Cup. Amnesty’s call was backed in an open letter to Infantino also signed by nine other organizations, including Migrant Rights and Football Supporters Europe.
When asked for comment, FIFA said it was “assessing the program proposed by Amnesty” for Qatar, highlighting that it “involves a wide range of non-FIFA World Cup-specific public infrastructure built since 2010.”
Qatar’s World Cup organizers said they have “worked tirelessly” with international groups for the rights of workers on stadiums and other tournament projects. Much of the criticism has however been directed at construction outside the official tournament where hundreds of workers are said to have died in the past decade.
“Significant improvements have been made across accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, health care provision, and reimbursements of illegal recruitment fees to workers,” said a spokesperson for the organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.
“This tournament is, and will continue to be a powerful catalyst for delivering a sustainable human and social legacy ahead of, during, and beyond the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”
Workers’ claims range from unpaid salaries, “illegal” and “extortionate” recruitment fees averaging $1,300 to secure jobs, and compensation for injuries and deaths.
Amnesty welcomed initiatives by FIFA and Qatar, including improvements made on World Cup construction sites and labor legislation reforms introduced since 2014.
Qatar in 2017 introduced a minimum wage, cut the hours that can be worked in extreme heat, and ended part of a system which forced migrant workers to seek employers’ permission to change jobs or even leave the country.
Workers can go to labor tribunals and more government inspectors have been appointed.
Foreign workers, mainly from South Asia, make up more than two million of Qatar’s 2.8 million population.
But Amnesty said only about 48,000 workers have so far been green-lighted to claw back recruitment fees.
It said the requested $440 million represents only a “small fraction” of the $6 billion in revenues FIFA is expected to make over the next four years, much of it from the World Cup.


Israel fires missile defenses near Lebanon after misidentification

Updated 19 May 2022

Israel fires missile defenses near Lebanon after misidentification

  • “Due to a misidentification, the air defense soldiers launched interceptors and as a result an alert was activated,” said the military

JERUSALEM: Israel activated its missile defenses on Thursday after mistakenly identifying a threat near the border with Lebanon, the Israeli military said.
The incident also set off air raid sirens in parts of northern Israel.
“Due to a misidentification, the air defense soldiers launched interceptors and as a result an alert was activated,” the military said.

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Hamas-backed bloc wins West Bank student elections

Updated 18 May 2022

Hamas-backed bloc wins West Bank student elections

  • The Hamas-backed bloc with 5,060 votes won 28 seats, while the Fatah-supported bloc with 3,379 votes bagged just 18 seats

RAMALLAH: The Islamic bloc affiliated with Hamas won the student council elections at Birzeit University in the West Bank on Wednesday, defeating their Fatah rivals in the tightly contested vote.

The Hamas-backed bloc with 5,060 votes won 28 seats, while the Fatah-supported bloc with 3,379 votes bagged just 18 seats.

Five blocs contested 51 seats, while the voter turnout was 78.1 percent. 

Students witnessed an intense debate between representatives of the rival blocs the previous day, with both parties’ policies and programs coming in for criticism.

The Islamic bloc has led the student council in recent years.

Their Fatah-backed rivals say they are paying the price for the mistakes of the Palestinian Authority in terms of corruption, nepotism and security coordination with Israel, and losing elections frequently.

A day before the vote, seven senior student members of the Islamic bloc were arrested by an Israeli undercover unit, which generated sympathy for the group and translated into votes, experts told Arab News.

Ghassan Al-Khatib, vice president of the university, said that the student council vote is an indicator of Palestinian public opinion and political balances in Palestinian society “because of the credibility, integrity and democracy at the Birzeit elections.”

Mohammed Daraghmeh, a senior Palestinian writer, told Arab News that Birzeit students are not influenced by employment interests or work, so the electoral process takes place “in a democratic atmosphere and with great integrity.”

He added: “If Hamas wins, the street is supportive and biased toward it. If Fatah wins, this means that the street is with it.”

Daraghmeh said that both Fatah and Hamas make great efforts to win the students’ backing.

The election “helps Hamas strengthen its political discourse, and show that Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank supports its path and political line,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fatah “wants to defend the legitimacy of the Palestinian political system in light of its inability to organize Palestinian general elections.”

Birzeit elections are held every two years, with about 15,000 students voting for 51 seats. There was no vote in 2021 owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

The secretariat of the administrative body of the council consists of 13 members.

Birzeit was established in 1973 as a public university, and is the only West Bank academic institution that allows Hamas to practice its activities and politics without interference from Israel or the PA.

A number of prominent Palestinian leaders have graduated from the university, which offers 36 bachelor’s degree programs and 13 master’s programs, and employs 500 teachers.

Students from the West Bank and a few hundred Palestinians living in Israel study there.

Basem Naim, a prominent Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, told Arab News that the political group views the student vote as “an essential indicator” because it highlights the direction of future generations.

“The Birzeit University elections constitute an essential platform for Hamas because most Palestinian leaders are university graduates. Therefore, their strength today indicates the type of future leaders of the Palestinian people in all sectors and fields,” he said.


Hezbollah chief Nasrallah acknowledges loss of Lebanon parliamentary majority

Updated 18 May 2022

Hezbollah chief Nasrallah acknowledges loss of Lebanon parliamentary majority

  • The elections saw gains by anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party and more than a dozen reform-minded newcomers, as well as a smattering of independents
  • The results mark a blow for Hezbollah, though Nasrallah declared the results “a very big victory”

BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged his party and its allies had lost their parliamentary majority in elections but said no single group had taken it, in his first televised speech since Sunday’s elections.
“Unlike the situation in parliament in 2018, no political group can claim a majority,” he said.
Hezbollah and its allies scored 62 seats during Sunday polls, according to a Reuters tally, losing a majority they secured in 2018, when they and their allies won 71 seats.
Hezbollah and its ally Amal held on to all of parliament’s Shiite seats. But some of its oldest allies, including Sunni, Druze and Christian politicians, lost theirs.
The elections saw gains by the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party and more than a dozen reform-minded newcomers, as well as a smattering of independents.
The results mark a blow for Hezbollah, though Nasrallah declared the results “a very big victory.”
Nasrallah called for “cooperation” between political groups including newcomers, saying the alternative would be “chaos and vacuum.”
The results have left parliament split into several camps, none of which have a majority, raising the prospect of political paralysis and tensions that could delay badly needed reforms to steer Lebanon out of its economic collapse.


Egypt hands down death sentence for priest’s murder

Updated 18 May 2022

Egypt hands down death sentence for priest’s murder

  • The defendant was found guilty of voluntary homicide
  • A court-ordered psychological assessment found him "responsible for his actions"

CAIRO: An Egyptian court on Wednesday sentenced to death a man accused of the murder last month of a Coptic priest in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, judicial sources said.
The Alexandria court’s ruling is subject to approval by the mufti of the republic.
The sources said the defendant was found guilty of voluntary homicide after a court-ordered psychological assessment found him “responsible for his actions.”
Father Arsanios Wadid died of his wounds in hospital after being stabbed on April 7 on Alexandria’s seafront promenade as he accompanied a group of young parishioners.
The assailant was grabbed by passers-by and handed over to police, who detained him in a psychiatric hospital because of doubts over his mental health.
Coptic Christians, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, make up roughly 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population of more than 100 million.
The community has long complained of discrimination and underrepresentation.
In February, however, Egypt for the first time swore in a Coptic judge to head its constitutional court.
Copts were targeted in a series of sectarian attacks after the military in 2013 deposed Islamist president Muhammad Mursi. Such attacks focused largely on remote villages in southern Egypt.