A major armed group in Syria has committed to identifying and releasing young boys and girls currently within its ranks, and put in place preventative, protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use, according to the United Nations.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance that has played a significant role in defeating the Islamic State (IS) terror group, signed an action plan with the U.N. to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18.
“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,” said Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main group within the SDF, has been listed in the U.N. Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict for the recruitment and use of children since 2014.
In its 2018 annual report on children in armed conflict, the U.N. found 224 cases of child recruitment by the YPG and its women’s unit in 2017.
The 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War prohibits the use of children under the age of 15 as soldiers.
Reforming the SDF
But Kurdish military officials charge that they have been taking serious measures to address the issue of child soldiers in recent years.
“We are the only non-state group in Syria that adheres to international standards when it comes to recruitment of children and the conduct of war in general,” an SDF commander who declined to be identified told VOA.
Experts said the U.S.-backed SDF is under pressure from its international patrons to reform in terms of ethnic and sectarian inclusivity.
“The SDF has a mandate to institutionalize and become a ‘normal’ security force, not just an umbrella coalition of militias, and this step is one of the important ways that it can achieve this goal,” said Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Turkey has criticized the U.N. for signing such an agreement with a group it deems as terrorist.
Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
“The signing of an agreement by the U.N., which should be at the forefront in the fight against terror, with a terrorist organization cannot be explained in any way,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
In March 2018, Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels took control of the SDF-held city of Afrin in northwestern Syria after a two-month-long battle against Kurdish fighters.
Ankara has also threatened to carry out attacks against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
But U.S. President Donald Trump said recently that he has told his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to make such a move.
Erdogan “had 65,000 men, army, on the border and he was going to wipe out Kurds… I called him, and asked him not to do it. I guess, they [Kurds] are natural enemies of his, or Turkey’s, and he has not done it. Then I said he [Erdogan] cannot do it,” Trump said over the weekend during a press conference in Osaka, Japan, where he attended the G-20 summit.