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Armed Conflicts

U.S.-backed Kurds to Halt Child Soldier use in Syria

United Nations staff hold signs with photos of children stating they are not targets. The U.N. has struck a deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to stop using child soldiers and to release all youngsters from their ranks. Courtesy: UN Women/Ryan Brown

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 2 2019 (IPS) - The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have struck a deal with the United Nations to stop using child soldiers across swathes of eastern Syria under their control and to release all youngsters from their ranks, the U.N. announced Monday.

General Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, an alliance of armed groups that includes the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), signed an accord over the weekend to halt recruitment of children under 18 years and to punish any officers who break the new rules.

The YPG has been identified as a recruiter of child soldiers in the U.N.’s annual “list of shame” since 2014. In its most recent annual study, the world body confirmed 224 cases of minors being recruited by the group in 2017.

“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 the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba.

The deal was the result of months of talks between the U.N. and the SDF, which must now identify any boys and girls among its force and send them back to their families. The group must also discipline officers who break the new rules.

Conditions for children in Syria are among the “direst” on her agenda, Gamba said. In 2017, she confirmed at least 6,000 violations had been committed against youngsters by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Worse still, the patchwork of rebels, terrorists and other armed militias fighting in Syria’s chaotic civil war committed more than 15,000 violations against children — ranging from recruitment to rapes, killings, maimings and the bombing of schools.

In addition to the YPG, the U.N. has named and shamed Syrian government forces, the rebel Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State (IS), the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, Jaish al-Islam and Tahrir al-Sham, the latest iteration of al-Qaeda’s former affiliate the al-Nusra Front.

After releasing all child soldiers and fulfilling the terms of its deal with the U.N. — known as an “action plan” — an armed group can be removed from the U.N.’s list of shame, as has happened with militias in Congo, Chad and Ivory Coast in recent years.

“Action plans represent an opportunity for parties to change their attitude and behaviour so that grave violations against children stop and are prevented to durably improve the protection of children affected by armed conflict,” Gamba said.

The SDF controls the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates river after driving back IS in a series of advances from 2015 that culminated in March with the group’s defeat at its last holdout in Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.

Washington’s support for the SDF has been problematic, as Turkey views the Kurdish-led force as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a domestic independence group that Ankara sees as a terrorist organisation.

Children are among the victims of a recent spike in fighting in Syria’s Idlib Province, the last remaining bastion for anti-government rebels and where a shaky truce brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be falling apart.

Thousands of pregnant women, vulnerable infants and young children are among the estimated 330,000 people fleeing conflict in the northwestern area, the Christian aid group World Vision said in a statement Monday. 

“It’s hard to imagine the trauma, distress and physical toll that the flight from air strikes and bombs has on families in Idlib. And it’s even worse for pregnant women and those with babies and young children,” said Mays Nawayseh, a World Vision aid worker.

The war in Syria, now in its 9th year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions since it started with the violent repression of anti-government protests in March 2011.

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