Will Syrian National Army abide by UN plan to prevent child recruitment

An element of the Sultan Suleiman Shah division participating in a military drill in the city of Afrin - October 31, 2021 (Reuters)

An element of the Sultan Suleiman Shah division participating in a military drill in the city of Afrin - October 31, 2021 (Reuters)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

As the recruitment of children threatens the next generation in Syria, the United Nations announced the signing of an action plan with the Syrian National Army stationed in parts of the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, aimed at “ending and preventing the recruitment, killing, and maiming of children, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1539 (2004) and subsequent resolutions.”

The signing of the action plan comes amid several changes being undertaken by the Ministry of Defense in the Syrian Interim Government (the political umbrella for the Syrian National Army) in recent months, prompting an inquiry into what follows the signing and the impact the plan will have on the factions in the region.

What is the action plan?

The plan, signed on June 3, commits the formations of the Syrian National Army, Ahrar al-Sham, and Army of Islam, and their allied factions to end and prevent the recruitment, use, killing, and maiming of children, to issue leadership orders to this effect, and to identify and release children currently within their ranks, according to a statement from the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict at the United Nations.

According to the statement, the signed plan obliges the Syrian side to put in place “preventive, protective, and disciplinary measures for the recruitment, use, killing, and maiming of children.”

The plan applies to any new factions that join or withdraw from the Syrian National Army and its affiliated groups after its signing.

The Ministry of Defense in the Syrian Interim Government stated that signing the action plan came “within the framework of its efforts to enhance commitment to international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” adding that this step will not be the last but “embodies a gateway to upcoming steps that require us all to work collaboratively and effectively.”

For her part, Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, welcomed the commitment of the opposition Syrian National Army, including Ahrar al-Sham and Army of Islam and their allied factions in signing the action plan.

She considered that the plan is crucial for better protection of Syria’s children, who still bear the brunt of the consequences of 13 years of armed conflict.

Military analyst Brigadier General Abdullah al-Asaad, sees in the signing of the action plan between the Syrian National Army and the United Nations a unanimous step indicating that the faction is a national army and not composed of militias and mercenaries, which is important to prevent child recruitment.

Al-Asaad added to Enab Baladi that the action plan may annoy the Syrian regime, as it views the two signatory parties as established institutions, meaning that the United Nations places the Syrian National Army in the ranking of regular armies.

According to Article Four of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, international law prohibits the recruitment of children into armed forces or their use in hostilities under the age of 18, while recruitment under the age of 15 is considered a “war crime.”

In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have previously signed the same plan in 2019, yet they still occupy the first place in child recruitment, raising questions about the commitment of the parties signing the action plan in implementing it.

Regarding the changes that may result after the signing of the action plan, military analyst Brigadier General Abdullah al-Asaad said that there are no clear features for the Syrian National Army to restructure and reorganize its ranks, and despite the apparent unification of it after the establishment of the Military College, it is still insufficient.

He continued that the internal substance of each faction should be restructured, followed by the supply of the army with new students who will graduate from the Military College with different ranks, and who will be trained by former officers and given “indoctrination” lessons usually granted to leaders, as he told Enab Baladi.


Despite the Syrian National Army denying the existence of child recruitment operations and its commitment to punishing offenders and releasing children if present, the accusations remain.

In July 2023, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres submitted his annual report to the UN Security Council on children and armed conflict for the year 2022, classifying Syria as the worst in the world in terms of child recruitment with a total of 1,696 children. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) topped the list with 637 cases of child recruitment, followed by all factions of the Syrian National Army with 611 violations.

The report verified 2,438 “grave” violations against children in Syria, including killing and maiming, recruitment, detention and abduction, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, use for military purposes, and denial of humanitarian aid, affecting at least 2,407 children in 2022.


Fadel Abdul Ghani, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told Enab Baladi that all parties to the “conflict” in Syria have practiced child recruitment but differed in percentages among them, considering the Syrian National Army as the third-ranked among the controlling entities violating children’s rights, and continues to extensively recruit them.

Abdul Ghani added that there are several reasons for recruitment, primarily in opposition-controlled areas, as it is considered a source of income for the family, especially if the child is the breadwinner following the father’s death or enforced disappearance.


He emphasized the need for a vision and a comprehensive plan to prevent child recruitment, as those resorting to recruitment have reasons such as relying on it as a “source of income.” It is essential to provide work other than recruitment and not to accept them upon application.

Fadel Abdul Ghani, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights


Abdul Ghani indicated that the Syrian National Army accepts the child when they are between the ages of 16 and 17, then lets them grow and continue fighting with the faction.

The army tends to hide the birthdates of children, especially since many of them are school dropouts due to the weak educational process in northwestern Syria, leading families to tend to recruit their children, according to Abdul Ghani.

Last February, the salaries of the Syrian National Army increased without an official decision, and according to what Enab Baladi learned from fighters, the increase varied between 80 and 90%. The basic salary of a member currently starts at 1,000 Turkish liras, up from 600 Turkish liras previously, while some close to commanders may receive up to 3,000 Turkish liras (1 USD averages 32 Turkish liras).

Syria generally suffers from a dire economic situation, with 90% of Syrians living below the poverty line, and 2.4 million Syrian children are out of school, according to UN figures.

Towards a “regular army”?

The Syrian National Army consists of three corps, with no fixed count of its elements. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian National Coalition) estimated their number at 80,000 fighters in 2019, while a report by the Middle East Institute in October 2022 mentioned that the formation includes between 50,000 to 70,000 fighters.

The Syrian National Army is witnessing processes of merging and splitting of numerous military formations under its mantle, with a prominent state of factions forming under multiple names despite their affiliation with the National Army.

After factional fighting and the intervention of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has military control in Idlib, into areas in the Aleppo countryside in 2022, the trend of the Syrian Interim Government towards reordering the ranks of the Syrian National Army and restructuring it has become evident despite dozens of previous attempts.

On October 27, 2022, the Interim Government launched a plan to activate the role of institutions and unify factions after a series of meetings and discussions held by the Ministry of Defense with various military and security forces within it.

One of the most prominent steps was the Syrian National Army announcement in January 2023 of the start of implementing the plan to hand over all security checkpoints to the military police administration in its controlled areas.

On March 20, the Ministry of Defense asked the groups in the region that are not affiliated with it to join the ministry under the conditions and standards of the Syrian National Army, stating that the aim is to “establish institutional work and improve the security situation in the region.”

On May 29, the Ministry of Defense in the Interim Government inaugurated a military academy in the Afrin area in northern Aleppo to provide modern military training to 500 elements initially, stating that creating the college was within the scope of converting the Syrian National Army into a regular army.


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