After months of talks, Syrian Democratic Forces commander General Mazloum Abdi signed an action plan with the United Nations on June 29 to end and prevent the enlistment of child soldiers in the force’s ranks. The step was taken to address the inclusion of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which operate under the SDF umbrella, in the 2018 U.N. annual report on the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.
“It is an important day for the protection of children in Syria and it marks the beginning of a process as it demonstrates a significant commitment by the SDF to ensure that no child is recruited and used by any entity operating under its umbrella,” U.N. Special Representative Virginia Gamba said in a release on Monday, July 1.
By signing the agreement, the SDF has pledged not only to end and prevent the recruitment of children, but also to identify and separate boys and girls currently within its ranks and to put in place preventative and disciplinary measures related to the use of minors.
The YPG is not the only force involved in the Syrian conflict that had been enlisting children. According to the U.N., Syrian government forces, including the National Defense Forces and pro-government militias, have recruited, killed and sexually abused minors.
Non-state actors such as Ahrar al-Sham, groups self-affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, Islamic State, Jaysh al-Islam and Nusrah Front-led Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have also been using children for fighting and in suporting roles. From 2013 to 2018, the U.N. verified 3,377 cases of children being used in the Syrian conflict, with 227 of them involving girls. About 80% of these children served in combat roles.
Human Rights Watch first condemned the recruitment of child soldiers by the YPG in 2014. Last year, the U.N. recorded a sharp increase in the force’s use of child soldiers in 2017 and early 2018, which coincided with the final stages of the military campaign against ISIS.
The U.N. report said there were over 380 verified cases of child use by the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in 2013-2018, including the recruitment of minors to serve at checkpoints far from active frontlines.
In August, Human Rights Watch said YPG recruited children from three displacement camps in northeast Syria, including six girls who enlisted voluntarily but without permission from families.
According to the HRW report, families had little contact with their children after they enlisted.
Responding to the watchdog’s investigation, the SDF legal office issued a statement saying that the claims put forth were “no more than individual violations and not systemic ones, nor do they reflect the working mechanism of our forces.”
However, in September, the SDF took a step toward ending the use of child soldiers, issuing a military order banning the recruitment of anyone under the age of 18. At the same time, the SDF military records office was ordered to verify the ages of those already enlisted.