UN signs action plan with Syrian National Army to prevent child recruitment

A child carries an unexploded artillery shell in a missile collection yard in the northern countryside of Idlib - March 5, 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

A child carries an unexploded artillery shell in a missile collection yard in the northern countryside of Idlib - March 5, 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

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The office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, affiliated with the United Nations, announced that an “action plan” has been signed with the Syrian National Army (SNA) based in parts of the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside. The plan aims to “end and prevent the recruitment, killing, and maiming of children in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1539 (2004) and subsequent resolutions.”

On Monday, June 3rd, it was added that Defense Minister in the Syrian Interim Government (the political umbrella of the National Army), Hasan al-Hamada, signed the action plan on behalf of the SNA, while the leader of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Amer al-Sheikh, signed on behalf of the movement, and, Mohammed Walid Dowara signed for Army of Islam. Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative for the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, signed on behalf of the United Nations.

According to the UN office’s website, the National Army, including Ahrar al-Sham and Army of Islam and their allied factions, are committed to ending and preventing the recruitment, use, killing, and maiming of children, issuing orders to this effect, and identifying and releasing children currently in their ranks.

The action plan signed by the parties obligates the Syrian side to establish “preventive, protective, and disciplinary measures to recruit, use, kill, or maim children.”

The action plan will also apply to any new factions that join or leave the National Army and its affiliated groups after it is signed.

Special Representative Virginia Gamba said, “I welcome the opposition Syrian National Army’s commitment, including Ahrar al-Sham and Army of Islam, and their allied factions to sign this action plan.”

She added that this step is important towards better protection for Syrian children, who are still bearing the brunt of the consequences of 13 years of “armed conflict.”

For its part, the Ministry of Defense in the Interim Government said on Monday that its signing of the action plan came “as part of its efforts to strengthen its commitment to international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”

The statement also mentioned that the head of the Interim Government, Abdurrahman Mustafa, signed the action plan alongside the Special Representative for the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, “as official witnesses.”

The statement quoted Mustafa as saying that this step will not be the last but “embodies a gateway to upcoming steps that require all of us to work in a participatory and effective manner.”

Military and de facto authorities in Syria face accusations of child recruitment, including the Syrian National Army. A report by the human rights organization Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) in 2022 stated that the Liberation and Construction Movement affiliated with the National Army continued to recruit children, documenting data on 17 recruited children used in combat missions.

Despite the National Army denying the existence of child recruitment operations and its commitment to holding violators accountable and discharging children if they exist, accusations persist. The Ministry of Defense in the Interim Government had previously denied these accusations in a statement.

The statement at the time prohibited the recruitment or voluntary enlistment of children under the age of 18 and called for the immediate discharge of recruited children.

The National Army controls the eastern and northern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in northeastern Syria, with various factions under its banner.

The SDF too

On July 3, 2019, leaders from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) went to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva and signed an agreement to prevent the recruitment of children under the age of 18. This came after years of recruiting minors into its ranks to participate in military operations in northeastern Syria.

The agreement, then termed an “action plan”, includes discharging recruited boys and girls and separating them from the forces, along with preventing and ending the recruitment of children under 18.

The plan was signed on behalf of the SDF by its General Commander, Mazloum Abdi, and the Special Representative for the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

The SDF was the first armed entity to sign such agreements, in addition to acknowledging the recruitment of minors in its ranks, through the presence of its leaders at the United Nations headquarters, including Mazloum Abdi and Redur Khalil, the former official spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

According to the United Nations, the Syrian regime, including the National Defense Forces and the militias loyal to it, are engaged in “recruitment and use, killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and attacks on schools and hospitals.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres placed the Syrian regime’s forces on the blacklist of children’s rights violators.

Syria was classified among the most dangerous countries for children in 2019, along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Nigeria, and Mali. A report by Save the Children on November 20, 2020, stated that one in five children lives in conflict zones or adjacent areas.

According to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 29,000 children have been killed in Syria since March 2011, along with more than 4,000 forcibly disappeared children and hundreds of thousands of displaced children.

 

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