In April of last year, the Nusra Front—now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—launched a campaign they called, “Mobilize,” in northern Syria, intended to recruit children. The campaign was conducted by 300 recruiters from the group and adopted the slogan, “Don’t be one of the qaideen [people who do not actively fight; the opposite of mujahideen].” Although it was intended to last no more than a month, the campaign is still ongoing and has now attracted 5,000 recruits to combat Shia militias.
Nusra does not ask for parental approval. “Defending religion and family are a duty, but those who want to join should leave matters of atonement to the scholars, and consider the blood of Muslims; those who do so consider it both a matter of Sharia and a military need,” the Nusra statement said. In order to achieve the widest distribution possible, millions of leaflets were printed and several social media accounts were created to promote the campaign. These promotional materials explained that everyone who joined Nusra would first undergo Sharia courses and then be sorted according to needs in order to receive military training. The campaign also called on merchants to support Nusra, claiming it would be unable to equip everyone who joins without assistance.
Aiming to roll back the “Mobilize” campaign, civil society activists launched a campaign titled, “Children, Not Soldiers,” in the city of Idlib and the surrounding countryside, the countryside west of Aleppo, and the countryside north of Hama. Their campaign aimed to educate against the practice of arming children—targeting the “Mobilize” campaign in particular. The head of the activist campaign, Essam Zeidan, spoke about its importance by saying that “Children, Not Soldiers” would last as long as “Mobilize.” It aims to fight until the “Mobilize” campaign is dismantled. By last June, as many as 500 children between the ages of thirteen and seventeen had joined the campaign. This included 350 children from border camp—particularly Camp Atma—and 150 from northern Syria—particularly Idlib and the surrounded countryside—according to campaign sources. The children included Syrians from within the country as well as those living in Turkey.
Abu Ahmed, who is from Jabal al-Zawiya in the Idlib Governorate and now works as a carpenter in Turkey, tells the story of how his son, Ahmed, joined the “Mobilize” campaign at the age of fourteen. Abu Ahmed is father to three boys and one girl. When his family traveled to Syria and got stuck there, unable to return to Turkey, Ahmed joined the “Mobilize” campaign following a “festival” that the Nusra Front held in their town. His wife did not know what Ahmed had done at first, but quickly realized what had happened after Ahmed went missing. Abu Ahmed communicated with a cousin who works as a teacher in a village school, who, after a week of persistent attempts, was able to find Ahmed and meet with him one-on-one. He spoke with him about the immorality of engaging in armed action and had Ahmed’s father speak with him over the phone. Abu Ahmed tried to persuade him to change his mind and leave the Nusra Front. Fortunately, after two meetings, Abu Ahmed and his cousin were successful in convincing Ahmed to leave Nusra. Today, Abu Ahmed hopes his family and Ahmed will be able to return to Turkey so that Ahmed can finish his education and not feel compelled to join an armed group again.
In a world where conflict has become increasingly common, particularly in lesser-developed countries and in the Middle East, children are often the victims of war; in many cases, they are the primary targets. Children suffer more from the effects of armed conflict than adults because they are physically and psychologically more vulnerable. Their involvement in battle can take many different forms—some are directly involved in combat, while others have supporting roles, including acting as weapons distributors, cooks, spies, or messengers. Many of these children, particularly girls, are sexually exploited.
All parties involved in the Syrian conflict, without exception—the regime, the Free Army, Islamists in the opposition, Kurdish militias, and the Islamic State—have used child soldiers. In the early days of the war, the Nusra Front became known for its use of children; former child soldiers have spoken out regarding Nusra’s recruitment methods, as described by a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
In order to recruit children, the Nusra Front relies on education as well as children and their families’ need for money and food. Sometimes, Nusra snatches kids directly off the streets. One former recruit, Majed, describes in the HRW report how he was recruited at the age of fifteen—members of the Nusra Front would go to civilians’ houses to take their children and then place them in an institute, of sorts, where they learned how to read the Quran and use light weaponry. He told HRW, “[Nusra] taught children how to read the Quran, then taught about weapons. They taught us how to take apart and put together a weapon. They put a target for us to practice shooting outside the mosque. Anyone who hit the target got a reward. If a family needed more supplies, for example, this would be a reward.”
Sometimes, families would facilitate their children’s recruitment for financial or for other reasons. This was what happened to Umar, who began training with the Nusra Front at the age of fourteen. Members of the shabiha—militias loyal to the Syrian regime—threatened him with a knife after he took part in a demonstration in the town of Salqin in Idlib province. After this incident, his father—a fighter with the Nusra Front at the time—took him to the Nusra headquarters to join the organization and train at their camp.
Child soldiers often suffer from physical and psychological problems, including severe introversion, emotional disorders, limitations in physical activity, and developmental delays in language and interpersonal skills. They also suffer difficulties in learning and behavioral problems such as stealing, lying, and aggression towards others. Children, before becoming militarized, often appear fearful and apprehensive towards adults who approach them—especially relatives—and are hesitant to speak with them. This makes it easier for ideological religious groups like the Nusra Front to control them, using tactics that give children a sense of self-worth and authority.
These examples show the relationship between the Nusra Front—now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—and civilians. The Nusra Front needs soldiers and wants to sow its ideas and principles in Syrian society, while civilians find themselves in need of money, economic support, and protection. Without addressing these factors, we will not succeed in stopping the recruitment of child soldiers. Without substantive action from the international community to stop the conflict in Syria, we will not be able to protect children and safeguard their future.
Sarah Sheikh Ali is the co-founder and director of Humena Organization for Human Rights and Development. She has worked in local and international organizations in Lebanon and Turkey for more than 8 years. She holds a Master’s degree in nongovernmental and international organizations, and a certificate in human rights from the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg.