In December, the YPG issued a general order that threatened commanders with legal action if they continued with the practice of using child soldiers. Photo: YPG Photo Gallery
By Carl Drott and Alexandra Di Stefano Pironti
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Syrian Kurdish forces have demobilized 149 children from their ranks and have signed a commitment to protect children in armed conflict, according to Geneva Call, an NGO that protects child soldiers.
The Swiss NGO said the children had been removed from the ranks of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the military wings of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which has declared autonomy in Syria’s Kurdish regions (Rojava). The PYD is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement.
“The 149 children who have already been decommissioned from the YPG-YPJ no longer bear firearms and they have been separated from the military bases as well as being offered educational classes,” said a statement from Geneva Call.
“On 5 July, after several months of negotiations with Geneva Call, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), and the ‘Democratic Self-Administration in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan)’ demobilized 149 children from their ranks and signed Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment protecting children in armed conflict during an official ceremony in Ramalan, in the Kurdish region of Syria,” the statement added.
The YPG-YPJ are the dominant military force in the Kurdish-populated areas since the withdrawal of most government forces in 2012, and have been mainly fighting against Islamist armed groups, particularly the Islamic State and the al-Nusrah Front.
During a visit to the frontline west of Serekaniye in January, Rudaw encountered YPG fighters who were clearly underage but had already seen combat several times. The commander explained that the unit had been assembled in haste three months earlier to counter the threat from jihadist groups, and that its fighters had not undergone formal training in one of the YPG academies.
By contrast, most of the fighters in a nearby unit were middle-aged. Such differences probably result from the practice of letting individual commanders recruit their own units locally.
Very close to the frontline, clearly underage armed boys and girls were also seen operating checkpoints, but their organizational affiliation was unclear.
In December, the YPG issued a general order that threatened commanders with legal action if they continued with the practice of using child soldiers. But in early January a 15-year old fighter was among the casualties of an offensive operation in the area around Tel Brak and Tel Hamis.
The Kurdish administration in Syria was formed in January 2014 and is the de facto governing authority in Rojava.
Geneva Call said that the agreement on child soldiers formalizes the policy of the Syrian Kurdish forces to prevent children under 18 from taking part in hostilities.
“We undertake to no longer use any under-18 children in hostilities, including for combat, spying, guarding tasks or supplies to combatants and we won’t admit any under-18s as combatants in our ranks” said Abdulkerim Sarukhan, President of the Defense Committee of the “Democratic Self-Administration,” quoted by Geneva Call.
The Swiss group said it would like to commend the signatories for their commitment.
“The war in Syria has terrible consequences on all children. They are very often left with no other option than joining armed forces. The engagement taken today is a difficult one and needs to be supported by the international community. It also raises hope that other parties to the conflict in Syria will take measures to protect children” said Elisabeth Decrey Warner, Geneva Call’s president.
“The signatories are the first stakeholders in the Syrian crisis who commit to this policy. We hope this will be a positive example and motivate others to take similar measures,” stated Youssef Wehbeh, Programme Officer at Geneva Call.
YPG Deputy General Commander Redur Xelil emphasized that the commitment reflects the values of the signatories and is not just a response to outside reports and allegations.
Regarding the use of underage fighters, he said, “We are against this phenomenon in principle, but many circumstances played a role in creating it. We are glad that Geneva Call is helping us in getting rid of it.”
In June, the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Kurdish authorities running the three autonomous enclaves in northern Syria were using children in the PYD’s police force and armed wing, the YPG.
The report also noted that the use of children was widespread in the various factions of the country’s civil war.
"Syrian armed groups should not prey on vulnerable children who have seen their relatives killed, schools shelled, and communities destroyed by enlisting them in their forces," said Priyanka Motaparthy, the author of that HRW report.
HRW, which said the number of children fighting in the conflict in Syria is unknown, made its report after interviewing 25 current and former child soldiers. But it does not cover pro-government forces, which are also allegedly using child fighters.
The report underlined that the reasons children were joining the armed groups were diverse, such as following family members or friends, or the fact that they were already in conflict zones and had no other choice.