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UN: Recruitment of children by US-backed militants in Syria on the rise

In this file picture, a Syrian teenager holds an AK-47 assault rifle as he takes part in military training at a former school turned into a "military academy" in Tlaleen in Syria's northern province of Aleppo. (By AFP)

Foreign-sponsored militant groups in Syria have recruited a growing number of children within their ranks even as fighting in most parts of the war-wracked country is winding down, according to a UN report.

The number of children recruited by extremist groups in Syria has risen steadily over the past three years — from 813 in 2020 to 1,296 in 2021 and 1,696 in 2022, the world body noted.

According to the report, among those recruiting children is the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-sponsored and Kurdish-led militant group that fights against Damascus. In 2022, the UN attributed more than a third of the cases, or 637, to the SDF and associated groups in northeast Syria.

The report also said the United Nations had confirmed 611 recruitment cases by Turkish-backed militants from the so-called Free Syrian Army, which has engaged in armed confrontations with the SDF in the past, and 383 by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) terrorist group in northwest Syria.

Bassam Alahmad, executive director of the civil society organization Syrians for Truth and Justice, said children are being recruited across Syria.

In some cases, children are forcibly conscripted, he said. In others, minors sign up because they or their families need the salary. Some join for ideological reasons, or because of family and tribal loyalties. In some cases, children are sent out of Syria to fight as mercenaries in other conflict zones.

Attempts to end such recruitment have been complicated by the patchwork of militant groups operating in various parts of Syria.

Nodem Shero, a spokesperson for one of the child protection offices run by the local administration in northern Syria, acknowledged that children continue to be recruited in areas under SDF control.

Among other groups in the area, which continue to target children, is the so-called Revolutionary Youth, a group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group — designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

The UN report attributed 10 cases to the Revolutionary Youth in 2022, but others say the numbers are higher.

In a January report, Syrians for Truth and Justice said Revolutionary Youth was responsible for 45 of 49 child recruitment cases it documented in northeastern Syria in 2022.

Since March 2011, Syria has been gripped by a campaign of militancy and destruction sponsored by the US and its allies.

In recent years, however, Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have managed to win back control of almost all regions from terrorist groups.

The US military has stationed its forces and equipment in northeastern Syria, with the Pentagon claiming that the deployment is aimed at preventing the oil fields in the area from falling into the hands of Daesh terrorists.

Damascus maintains that the deployment is meant to plunder Syria’s natural resources. Former US President Donald Trump admitted on several occasions that American forces were in the Arab country for its oil wealth.

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