Children are being routinely exploited in war zones, forced to fight alongside radical extremists and even take part in suicide missions, according to a report published today.
Entitled 'Maybe we live and maybe we die', the report from Human Rights Watch documents the experiences of over 2 dozen current and former Syrian child soldiers, and found that boys as young as 15 are being taught to fight by militant groups while much younger children are also being used in 'support' roles.
Syria has faced huge political unrest since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, and the situation is now universally regarded as a humanitarian crisis. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that a staggering 9.5 million people are in need of aid while 100,000, including over 11,000 children, have been killed as a result of the conflict.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Violations Documenting Centre, a Syrian monitoring group, has documented 194 deaths of "non-civilian" male children in Syria since September 2011.
Research indicates that many extremist militant groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front coalition, recruit young children to fight – even sending them on suicide bombing missions. The exact number of children currently being exploited in this way is unknown, but those interviewed by HRW had "fought in battles, acted as snipers, manned checkpoints, spied on hostile forces, treated the wounded on battlefields, and ferried ammunition and other supplies to front lines while fighting raged," the report notes.
These activities have been denounced by HRW, which notes that "numerous serious violations of international war" have taken place in Syria since the conflict began.
"Syrian armed groups shouldn't prey on vulnerable children – who have seen their relatives killed, schools shelled, and communities destroyed – by enlisting them in their forces," says Middle East children's rights researcher at HRW, Priyanka Motaparthy, who authored the report.
"The horrors of Syria's armed conflict are only made worse by throwing children into the front lines."
A 16 year old, named as 'Majed', told researchers that he was recruited by extremist Islamic group Jabhat al-Nusra along with other young boys in his community through the offer of free schooling. This education included "military training and target practice".
He also shared that militants pressurised children into undertaking suicide bombings. "Sometimes fighters volunteered, and sometimes [commanders] said, 'Allah chose you,'" he said. 'Amr', who fought with ISIS, reported a similar story. He was encouraged to sign up for a suicide attack by the leaders of his faction, but fortunately managed to escape before it was scheduled to take place.
Another young man, who began fighting with an FSA brigade at just 15-years-old, told HRW workers: "At first I was so scared...then I got used to it".
"Maybe we'll live, and maybe we'll die," another, aged 14, commented.
The leaders of some militant groups admitted allowing children to join their ranks. "16, 17 is not young. [If we don't take him,] he'll go fight on his own," Abu Rida, leader of the Saif Allah al-Maslool brigade, told HRW.
"We would accept them whatever the age," declared another commander.
The HRW report notes that the recruitment of child soldiers is illegal under international human rights laws, while conscripting children under 15 is designated a war crime, and has called for an end to the practice.
Though there are several organisations working to eradicate the recruitment of children into armed conflict, including a coalition of armed groups in Syria, there remains little support for those caught up in the violence. A 17-year old named 'Saleh' told HRW: "I lost my future, I lost everything".
The organisation is thus calling upon the government and armed groups to enforce greater protections for young people across Syria, and has requested that donors stem all assistance to groups implicated in the practice of child recruitment.
"Aid should be restored only if groups end the abuses and take appropriate disciplinary action against anyone involved," it commands.
HRW has also asked refugee and humanitarian agencies working in the region to ensure that education is a top priority, and underlined the importance of addressing "the particular needs and vulnerabilities of boys aged 13 to 18 in their child protection programming".
"Governments supporting armed groups in Syria need to press these forces to end child recruitment and use of children in combat," Motaparthy said.
"Anyone providing funding for sending children to war could be complicit in war crimes."
Watch Human Rights Watch's video below: