U.S. Ally in Syria Declares End to Using Child Soldiers

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have declared an official ban on using child soldiers in their battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and other hostile forces in the war-ravaged country.

The announcement came in the form of an official military order by the Syrian Democratic Forces Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi released Friday by the militia's press office. Recent reports from the U.N. and human rights groups have accused the group of forcefully conscripting minors, prompting a denial from the fighters' political wing last month. While not explicitly admitting fault, the latest order instructed fighters under the age of 18 to be removed from service in compliance with international law.

"The Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces [Mazloum Abdi] issued a military order to all concerned of the relevant parties of the components of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which included a number of clauses that confirm the commitment of the Syrian Democratic Forces to all the provisions and instruments contained in international conventions to spare children from the scourge and calamities of war."

Abdi specifically expressed his commitment to U.N.'s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, last year's Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1612 "and subsequent council resolutions on children and armed conflict."

Teen fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces joke around with each other in Raqqa, Syria, on October 1, 2017. The city served as ISIS's de facto capital and the U.S.-led coalition helped the Syrian Democratic Forces take it from the jihadis last year, while pro-Syrian government forces focused on battling the militants elsewhere in the country. Erik De Castro/Reuters

The Syrian Democratic Forces is a mostly Kurdish alliance of fighters that also includes Arabs and other communities. It was formed in October 2015 in response to the ISIS takeover of large stretches of northern Syria, and it quickly received Pentagon support. The group became the leading U.S. ally as CIA-backed rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became increasingly overshadowed and absorbed by Islamists —and, eventually, ISIS as well.

"As part of forced conscription campaigns in areas under its control, the Syrian Democratic Forces continued to conscript men and children for military service throughout the reporting period. Conscripts, including children as young as 13, receive basic training before being deployed to active frontlines," said a March report from the U.N. Syria Commission.

"In July 2017, two boys, aged 15 and 16, enlisted with the Syrian Democratic Forces in Tabaqah [Raqqah]. The youngest subsequently sustained an arm injury in battle. In another instance, one Raqqah resident who had fled the city in mid-July 2017 was stopped with his family upon arrival in the territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces and interrogated by a Kurdish teenage boy in uniform. Although less frequent, girls have also been recruited; a teenage girl was recruited by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqah in October 2017," it added.

In May, the U.N. Security Council report on children in armed conflict found 224 cases of child recruitment by the People's Protection Units (YPG), a dominant Kurdish faction within the Syrian Democratic Forces, an increase of nearly five times since the previous year's report. Human Rights Watch investigated the claim and unearthed a number of testimonies regarding the issue. In a report published last month, the organization said that "the group should remove its reservation entirely, and stop recruiting anyone under 18."

The Syrian Democratic Forces' legal office responded days later. "We believe that the claims put forth in the Human Rights Watch report issued from the Beirut office are no more than individual violations and not systemic ones, nor do they reflect the working mechanism of our forces," it said. The office vowed to investigate the claims, but defended its treatment of minors and said that "as such, we must express our reservations about the tone of the report."

A press release dated September 5 and attributed to Syrian Democratic Forces commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi officially forbids the practice of conscripting fighters under the age of 18 and instructs that all minors be removed from service immediately. Syrian Democratic Forces Press Office

The press release accompanying Abdi's order, which was dated for Wednesday, said that all those found to be under 18 within his ranks would be removed and referred to relevant authorities, such as education officials across the self-ruling region where the group is active in parts of northern and eastern Syria. The order called for all salaries to conscripted minors to be suspended and for an office to be opened to receive complaints in the case of families whose children have been enlisted in their U.S.-backed fight in Syria.

While largely focused on battling ISIS, the group's Kurdish separatist elements—especially the YPG—have at times steered its attention toward battling the very Syrian rebels that the U.S. used to support as well as their Turkish sponsor, which considers militias such as the YPG to be terrorist organizations due to apparent links to an ongoing Kurdish insurgency against Ankara. The group is also currently in talks with the Syrian government in an attempt to negotiate a place in post-war Syria, as Assad and his allies regain control.