Aleppo children forcibly kidnapped and recruited in SDF’s allied militia

A school near al-Razi neighborhood in Aleppo city - 18 July 2021 (Enab Baladi/Saber al-Halabi)

A school near al-Razi neighborhood in Aleppo city - 18 July 2021 (Enab Baladi/Saber al-Halabi)


Enab Baladi – Aleppo

Nidal accompanies his sixteen-year-old brother Kamal to and from his school in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood in Aleppo city over fears of being kidnapped by the Kurdish Tevgera Ciwanên Şoreşger (Revolutionary Youth Movement) operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The civil society in Aleppo, and Syrian and international human rights organizations, have frequently accused the Kurdish-led forces of establishing training camps for kidnaped children, who were forced to be recruited far from their original areas.

The child soldiers have been prevented from contacting their families amid fears for their fate, rights advocates say.

Kidnapped in public

Nidal, 40, whose full name was withheld by Enab Baladi for security reasons, said: “Affiliates of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) are cooperating with the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM). “Their task centered on searching for teenagers between (14-18 years old) in order to persuade them to join the RYM for a monthly stipend,” he added.

But if the young people refuse to join the RYM, the kidnapping becomes inevitable, according to Nidal, who works in an electrical equipment store.

“Sometimes the kidnapping takes place during daylight hours, “but no one dares to talk about what is happening, even some people watch what is happening, but they do not speak out for fear of arrest,” he added.

Syria is the third-worst country in the world for the recruitment and use of children after Congo and Somalia.

At least 837 children were recruited in Syria in 2020 alone, where the SDF ranked second in recruitment and use of children with 119 cases, after Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Islamist group, according to the United Nations report on “Children and Armed Conflict” for 2020.

Financial rewards for brainwashing children

The recruitment in first steps stands on merits and rewards financially to motivate young people to join the ranks of the “Revolutionary Youth.” Also, it stands on meetings in the streets, alleys, and cafes where discussions tackle revolutionary ideas, change will, and common ideological backgrounds.

People whose job is to recruit young people are said to receive financial rewards and even an unlimited fund to cover the expenses while searching for child recruits.  

Nidal says: “People who recruit boys are known in the Ashrafiya and Sheikh Maqsoud areas, and when the parents see their son while he is with these people, they fear that they have brainwashed their son, and therefore he may have been convinced to join. Even if the parents refuse and the boy agrees, he is taken against his parents’ will. This has happened several times.” 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented at least 537 cases of child recruitment by the SDF since its formation in 2014 until the date of the report’s release on 16 December 2021. Some of them were released, and others were re-recruited, and so on in an ongoing cycle, according to the report.

Recruiting children by the SDF forces is preceded by a series of attempts to persuade and encourage children by offering them inducements, with schools of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) often participating in encouraging child recruitment.

The report also mentioned that recruitment is taking place by kidnapping children even from schools, not only in the streets or neighborhoods.

In early January, a 15-year-old Alan was kidnapped in front of the Halimah al-Sa’diyah school in Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood.

According to his sister, Amina, 30, “Alan was kidnapped after he refused to join the “Revolutionary Youth.” Since then and until writing this report, Alan’s fate is still unknown to his family.

The impact of recruitment at the level of children is more severe than the effect of kidnapping on their families. If conscription is forced through kidnapping or other methods, children will be unable to make decisions, and the experience will be very shocking and difficult by losing the will to determine their fate because military action has a specific method, and missions a person entrusted with may not be commensurate with his age. This increases the psychological impact on the person and leaves many psychological problems that will accompany him for the rest of his life.

War crime

The families of the kidnapped children resort to announce the kidnapping case on social media platforms since the legal and human rights moves under the SDF oversight, which is the armed wing of the Autonomous Administration that controls parts from Aleppo governorate for seven years, most notably the neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiya.

According to a lawyer based in the Ashrafiya district, who spoke to Enab Baladi on condition of anonymity, “the kidnapping of minors or young people and their inclusion in the ranks of the Autonomous Administration is a crime in and of itself that may amount to a war crime.”

The Syrian legislator recognized the protection of freedom of movement as a voluntary act of the individual, according to his will to practice his work and his other rights and freedoms.

According to Article No. 481 of the Syrian Penal Code, whoever kidnaps or deports a minor who has not completed 18 years of age, even with his consent, with the intention of removing him from the authority of his guardian, shall be punished by imprisonment from six months to three years and a fine of 100,000 Syrian pounds.

“Despite the repeated crimes in the SDF-controlled areas, still nobody is held accountable or punished, which contradicts the “Social Contract” charter, the Administration’s own constitution, according to the lawyer.

The “Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) must be dissolved immediately because it goes against the principles of the Autonomous Administration and any of the international covenants and international humanitarian law, the Ashrafiya-based lawyer demanded.

Children in armed conflict benefit from the general protection enshrined in international humanitarian law just as civilians or combatants.

All recruitment, including forced recruitment, for those under the age of 15, is prohibited by international treaty law in the 1977 international protocols annexed to the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’s Article No. 8.

The Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability reported in July 2020 that the SDF made promises to end such practices, and despite the pledge and news that major aspects of the plan were implemented, accusations of recruiting 11-year-old boys and girls are still echoing.

Bassam al-Ahmad, director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, believes that there is no justification for violating the rights of children and recruiting them in SDF-controlled areas because it has at least 30,000 fighters in military operations, and therefore kidnapping children will not make any difference in these confrontations since their age is not suitable for engaging in armed conflict.

Al-Ahmad told Enab Baladi that despite the fact that all parties in the Syrian conflict have kidnapped children for recruitment based on human rights organizations’ credible reports, the privacy in SDF-controlled areas comes from a commitment established by the SDF itself by signing an agreement with the United Nations to protect children within its regions.

The child protection offices periodically declare that there are demobilizations of children from recruitment, but the main crime, which is the kidnapping and recruitment of children, has not stopped so far, and therefore the SDF and the Autonomous Administration behind it must stop all forms of child recruitment and reveal the fate of the disappeared from them, especially since the recruiters are under the authority of the Autonomous Administration,” al-Ahmad recommends.

Usually, the recruitment depends on the needs of the recruiting party, and despite the establishment of the Autonomous Administration in 2020, a special office related to the recruitment of children in the ranks of its military formations, these recruitment processes still hover over the fate of children and their safety.


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