Accessibility links

Kurdish Militia Accused of Using Child Soldiers in Syria

Fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, wave their yellow triangular flag on the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, June 15, 2015.

Fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, wave their yellow triangular flag on the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, June 15, 2015.

An international rights group Wednesday accused Syria's main Kurdish militia of continuing to use child soldiers, despite pledging to stop sending minors to war.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the Kurdish militia group the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has made some progress in fulfilling a public commitment it made last year. It demobilized 149 child soldiers soon after pledging to rid its ranks of under-18-year-olds, but Human Rights Watch says it has backtracked.

The rights group says it has documented cases during the past year of children under 18 joining and fighting with the YPG and the YPJ, its female branch.

Some of the underage fighters died in combat in June 2015. HRW says 59 children, 10 of them under 15 years old, were recruited by or volunteered for the YPG or YPJ since July 2014 when the Kurdish militia’s leaders signed a Deed of Commitment with Geneva Call, a non-governmental organization that campaigns for humanitarian norms to be observed in conflict zones.

International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court classify the recruitment of under-15-year-olds as a war crime.

Commitment questioned

"The YPG promised to stop sending children to war and it should carry out its promise," said Fred Abrahams, HRW's special adviser. He added the fact other armed groups in the civil war in Syria use child soldiers is no excuse for the YPG to tolerate abuses by its own forces. He singled out the extremist Islamic State group, which has flaunted its recruitment of child soldiers and posted videos online of teenagers and even younger fighters executing prisoners.

“Armed groups in Syria are placing children in direct harm by giving them weapons and sending them to fight,” Abrahams said. “The YPG has a chance to stop this practice and show that it’s serious about keeping its commitments on human rights.”

After requesting a response to the allegations, Kurdish leaders replied that they face "significant challenges" in stopping the use of child soldiers. The rights group said in some cases, the Kurdish militia enlisted children without parental consent.

Recruitment of girls

In its report on the allegations, HRW quotes a father of a 14-year-old girl near the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli as saying, “We knew nothing about her until a YPJ commander called and informed us that she had joined YPJ.”

VOA has heard similar complaints in recent months from Kurdish families in northeast Syria and among Kurdish refugees in southern Turkey, especially about teenage girls being recruited by the YPJ without parents being asked or their opposition ignored. Families fear to speak out publicly. “They can make life very difficult for people who criticize them,” says Asmin, a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee in the Turkish town of Suruc. She asked her family name not to be disclosed.

She says a 16-year-old recently joined the YPJ after arguing with her parents about family issues. “It was a way for her to run off, leave her family. She did not tell her parents who went to the YPJ commanders to demand her back.” They ignored her. Another family, now in southern Turkey, told VOA last month that they had been denied access to their daughter when they were all still in Syria and commanders refused to pass on a food parcel they took to the barracks for her.

In June, a U.N. report cited the case of a 13-year-old girl who was taken to Ras al-Ayn for military training by the YPJ. Requests by her parents to see her were refused.

The YPG and YPJ are in effect the armed wings of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

On July 5, the YPG and YPJ issued an order to commanders and recruiter centers ordering them not to enlist anyone under 18. Internal regulations of the YPG as well as the Kurdish-run police force, called Asayish, formally forbid the use of under-18-year-olds. The YPG claims it has disciplined commanders for recruiting under-age fighters.

‘Non-combatant category’

But HRW raises an additional concern, saying the YPG has created a “non-combatant category” for children aged 16 and 17 and in its letter to the rights group the militia leaders said they were keeping recruits under this category away from the front lines. But the rights group says this too breaches international humanitarian norms, which prohibit the recruitment by armed groups of under-18-year-olds in any capacity: as scouts, checkpoint guards or couriers.

An optional protocol approved by the U.N. general assembly in 2002 prohibits non-state armed groups from recruiting under-18-year-olds in any capacity.

In June, the U.N. Secretary General warned the recruitment and use of children in combat had become commonplace in Syria. Ban Ki-moon said investigators had verified 271 boys and seven girls had been recruited and used by groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the YPG/YPJ, Islamic State and al-Qaida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. But Ban added the actual numbers were clearly much higher.

“Boys associated with armed groups were commonly between 14 and 17 years of age, with 17 verified cases under the age of 15,” Ban reported. “In many cases, children were paid to fight for salaries of up to $400 per month. The payment of relatively large salaries ... created an incentive for children and their parents under difficult economic circumstances.”

Worst offender

U.N. investigators and rights groups say the Islamic State is the worst offender in enlisting child soldiers. The extremists call them the Cubs of the Caliphate, who are transformed into warriors and suicide bombers or spies to help IS search out dissent and warn of resistance to its rule among the local population.

Many of the reinforcements IS sent to Kobani, the mainly Kurdish Syrian border town that defeated a months-long siege by the militants in January, reportedly were Syrian youngsters. The Islamic extremists have been ramping up efforts to recruit and indoctrinate children in territory they control across Syria.

The push to control the children of their self-proclaimed caliphate is partly a consequence, Syrian rebel commanders think, of the high death toll the militants have suffered as a result of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, the prolonged struggle for Kobani and battles in Iraq and northeast Syria with the Kurds. Syrian political activists say several hundred have been recruited using a mixture of intimidation and cash offers to families for their children.

In the latest issue of the Islamic State’s English-language propaganda magazine, extremist propagandists claim in a lengthy feature that children are entitled, in fact obliged, to become jihadists, even if their parents object and decline permission.