Northeast Syria’s experience signifies challenge of ending use of children in conflicts

Demonstrators call for the release of young girls they say were abducted into fighting for the YPG. (AFP)
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Demonstrators call for the release of young girls they say were abducted into fighting for the YPG. (AFP)
SDF fighters take part in a military parade in the US-protected Al-Omar oil field in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on March 23, 2021. (AFP file)
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SDF fighters take part in a military parade in the US-protected Al-Omar oil field in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on March 23, 2021. (AFP file)
Demonstrators call for the release of young girls they say were abducted into fighting for the YPG. (AFP)
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Demonstrators call for the release of young girls they say were abducted into fighting for the YPG. (AFP)
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Updated 27 January 2022

Northeast Syria’s experience signifies challenge of ending use of children in conflicts

Northeast Syria’s experience signifies challenge of ending use of children in conflicts
  • Recruitment and use of children by armed forces is a serious violation of child rights and international humanitarian law
  • Kurdish-led SDF faces criticism for continued recruitment of underaged fighters despite 2019 pledge to end the practice

DUBAI: Rawan Al-Aleku was visiting a friend in Debrassiye, in northeast Syria, in the summer of 2020 when she was conscripted by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias raised in 2014 to fight Daesh. She was just 16 years old.

Narrating Al-Aleku’s story, her Iraqi Kurdistan-based relative Farhad Osso, a human rights activist, told Arab News that the schoolgirl had effectively been kidnapped after her friend’s mother took her to the local Kurdish security office.

Al-Aleku found herself whisked away to a boot camp for young conscripts, where she underwent months of grueling military drills and political indoctrination. All the while, according to Osso, she had no contact with her family.




Rawan Al-Aleku, who was returned to her family one year after her recruitment at age 16. (Supplied)

As the weeks turned into months, Al-Aleku’s father Omran made increasingly angry demands for her release, eventually resulting in his arrest.

When he was released, he published an open letter on Facebook demanding his daughter’s freedom.

“My case is that of kidnapping, the kidnap of a child from her home, her school and her friends and her childhood,” Omran wrote, appealing directly to the SDF’s Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi, who had one year earlier pledged to end the practice of child recruitment.

“These traitors kidnapped my daughter. I have been told you are following through with your pledge, so why is it you apply the rules only where you deem fit? You stole my past, present and future.”

Al-Aleku’s story is not an isolated one in northeast Syria. When Daesh began seizing territory in the summer of 2014, the SDF raised a multi-ethnic alliance that teamed up with the US-led coalition to retake territory from the extremists. In the process, scores of under-aged fighters were swept into its ranks.

Before the Syrian uprising of 2011, Kurdish language and culture were suppressed by the regime of President Bashar Assad.

But when regime troops were withdrawn from Syria’s multi-ethnic north to quell the uprising elsewhere, the Kurds began to manage their own affairs.

It was in 2014, with the emergence of Daesh, that the Kurds mobilized to defend their newfound freedoms.

Syria’s Kurds won global praise for their sacrifices, which resulted in the final territorial defeat of Daesh in the town of Baghuz in March 2019.

The women in the SDF’s ranks were a particular source of inspiration, later depicted as fearsome heroines in movies and even video games.




The women in the SDF’s ranks were a particular source of inspiration. (AFP file photo)

Rojava, the Kurdish-led autonomous region of northeast Syria, quickly became an epicenter for the broader Kurdish cause, wrapped in the revolutionary socialist zeal of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, of neighboring Turkey.

Once the Daesh threat had receded in Syria, many living in Rojava began to express reservations about the political aims of the main force within the SDF: The People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

The YPG is the militia of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Syrian-Kurdish nationalist group linked to the PKK, which has waged a decades-old guerrilla war against the Turkish state in pursuit of greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in the country’s southeast.

According to a report by the Atlantic Council, to support the PYD’s political and military efforts in Syria, Kurds from Turkey, Iran and Iraq have traveled to Syria to join with the YPG.

FASTFACTS

The recruitment and use of children by armed forces or groups is a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.

Sources told Arab News that while some Syrian Kurds were drawn to the PKK’s ideals, others viewed them as foreign and subversive.

As the SDF’s demand for troops increased to fend off militant attacks and later Turkish cross-border incursions — first in Afrin in 2018, then in northeast Syria in 2019 — SDF conscription quotas began to taken in more and more under-aged fighters, according to the sources.

Osso says he and fellow human rights activists have documented more than 80 similar cases of minors being forcibly conscripted by the SDF.




Among the female fighters in the SDF, human rights activists have found cases of teenage girls being forcibly conscripted. (AFP)

Among them was a 15-year-old girl who disappeared in December 2021 in the border town of Kobane.

“Her parents received confirmation she was there, but the Revolutionary Youth Movement refuses to give her back,” Osso said, referring to the PKK-affiliated group that conscripted her.

“Generally, all kids who were kidnapped in northern Syria received military and combat training and, most importantly and most dangerously, the kids are subjected to an intense brainwashing, to an extent where they’re told to forget their parents and where they came from,” he added.

“PKK ideals are all that matters. Parents aren’t allowed to have any contact with their children during the time of training.”

As the SDF’s power and influence grew over the course of the war against Daesh, analysts say, so too did the influence of the PKK, which had established a presence in Syria’s northeast at around the same time.




Syrian Kurdish troops march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on April 22, 2021. (AFP)

Thousands of its fighters moved in from the Qandil Mountains of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region to take advantage of the strategic opportunities opening up on the southern flank of their mortal foe Turkey.

The comrades from the mountains were often received with open arms, with local groups deferring to their discipline and battlefield experience.

Posters plastered throughout Rojava towns depicting the “martyrs” of recent battles were always topped with the PKK’s fallen, while the SDF’s and YPG’s dead appeared below. Many of the casualties were not old enough to be carrying weapons.

The recruitment and use of children by armed groups is considered a grave violation of child rights and international humanitarian law.

In 2019, having faced criticism for the continued recruitment of children by SDF factions, Abdi — himself a Syrian-Kurdish veteran of the PKK — signed a UN-supervised pledge on behalf of the Rojava administration to end the practice.




Mazloum signed a pledge against child recruitment in 2019. (Supplied)

To enforce this commitment, the SDF established the Office of Child Protection from Armed Conflict, which has been credited with demobilizing and returning more than 200 children to their families.

But in November 2021, dozens of Kurdish families gathered outside the UN compound in the city of Qamishli, in northern Syria, accusing the SDF of breaking its pledge.

Responding to the allegations, Farhad Shami, head of the SDF’s media center, said reports of ongoing child recruitment are inaccurate and exaggerated.

“There are no conscripted individuals under the age of 18 years old in the SDF,” he told Arab News. “Conscription abides by the written laws and rules, which clearly state no minors are allowed to join.”

Shami concedes that the Revolutionary Youth Movement, an unarmed faction, does recruit minors, but only with parental consent.




Among the female fighters in the SDF, human rights activists have found cases of teenage girls being forcibly conscripted. (AFP)

“We, in the SDF, confirm the implementation of all the conditions in the event that anyone wishes to join our forces, the most important of which is the appropriate age requirement,” he said.

However, Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, told Arab News that “all armed forces from all factions in Syria are guilty” of recruiting child soldiers.

“The only difference is that the SDF signed a pledge with the UN in 2019 to stop the practice, unlike the Syrian regime forces and the rebels,” he said.

“While children were returned to their parents after that, this phenomenon is far from over. There should be zero cases of child recruitment.”




SDF fighters stand guard as displaced people prepare to board a bus on their way home at the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria's Al-Hasakeh governorate on June 3, 2019. (AFP file)

A report prepared by Syrians for Truth and Justice cites at least 17 cases of boys and girls being recruited during the last three months of 2021, only one of whom has been returned home. The fate of the others remains unknown.

A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights said at least 156 fighters conscripted as children remain in SDF ranks, and 19 were conscripted in November 2021 alone.

Wherever children have served in combat zones, the lasting damage to cognitive development and emotional wellbeing is well documented.




The lasting damage to cognitive development and emotional wellbeing of children who have served in combat zones is well documented. (AFP file photo)

“This is a heavy subject to tackle,” said Alahmad. “Unfortunately, the kids who spent months in training camps are in dire need of psychological support — a service rarely provided at the moment.”

When Al-Aleku was finally returned to her family one year later, her character had changed dramatically, remolded to fit the intense demands of soldiering and the duties of a loyal revolutionary.

“She was brainwashed with the communist ideals of the PKK and she was trained in weaponry,” Osso said. “Her parents were distraught.”


Two killed, 120 injured in Abu Dhabi gas explosion

Two killed, 120 injured in Abu Dhabi gas explosion
The blast on Monday set off a fire that damaged the facades of six buildings and a number of stores. (AP)
Updated 24 May 2022

Two killed, 120 injured in Abu Dhabi gas explosion

Two killed, 120 injured in Abu Dhabi gas explosion
  • Two people were killed and 120 injured in a gas cylinder explosion in a restaurant in Abu Dhabi
  • The blast on Monday set off a fire that damaged the facades of six buildings and a number of stores

ABU DHABI: Two people were killed and 120 injured in a gas cylinder explosion in a restaurant in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi, police said.
Initial reports “showed that 64 people sustained minor injuries, 56 others were moderately wounded, and two people died,” police tweeted.
The blast on Monday set off a fire that damaged the facades of six buildings and a number of stores before being brought under control, they added.
Four of the damaged buildings were “safely” evacuated, with efforts underway to find their residents temporary housing “until the buildings are completely secured,” the police said.
Pictures released by Abu Dhabi police showed first responders tending to a person on a gurney, and debris and broken glass strewn across the pavement.
A witness told The National newspaper that he heard two explosions around lunchtime.
“The first sound was small and people started calling the fire and police,” said the man, who was not identified.
“Then soon, there was a big blast. It was a really big sound. The windows shook and in some offices, the windows shattered.”
The authorities gave no indication of foul play.
However, the UAE has been on heightened alert since a Houthi drone and missile attack killed three oil workers in Abu Dhabi on January 17.


Two Iranian pilots killed after F7 jet crashes - IRNA

Two Iranian pilots killed after F7 jet crashes - IRNA
Updated 39 min 7 sec ago

Two Iranian pilots killed after F7 jet crashes - IRNA

Two Iranian pilots killed after F7 jet crashes - IRNA

TEHRAN: A fighter jet crashed in the central desert of Iran on Tuesday, killing both the aircraft’s pilots, local media reported.
The aircraft crashed at the Anarak training site near the central city of Isfahan, Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency reported. The agency, which is close to the country’s military, did not identify the cause of the crash, and said authorities were investigating.
Iran’s air force has an assortment of US-made military aircraft purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It also has Russian-made MiG and Sukhoi planes. Decades of Western sanctions have made it hard to obtain spare parts and maintain the aging aircraft. Crashes occasionally happen among its faltering fleet. In February, a fighter jet plunged into a soccer pitch in the country’s northwestern city of Tabriz, killing both pilots and a civilian.
Iran is believed to have modeled its F-7 fighter after China’s jet J-7 that is considered a copy of the Soviet-era MiG-21. Beijing built the aircraft for export to countries including Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and North Korea. Iranian pilots for years have used the F-7 for training, with some mishaps.
Four years ago, an F-7 similarly crashed near Isfahan during an aerial exercise because of what was later described as a technical problem.


Death toll rises to 10 after building collapses in Iran’s Abadan city

Death toll rises to 10 after building collapses in Iran’s Abadan city
Updated 24 May 2022

Death toll rises to 10 after building collapses in Iran’s Abadan city

Death toll rises to 10 after building collapses in Iran’s Abadan city
  • The 10-story residential and commercial building partly collapsed on Monday

DUBAI: The death toll from a building collapse in the southern Iranian city of Abadan has reached 10, with some people still missing, the official IRNA news agency reported on Tuesday.
The 10-story residential and commercial building partly collapsed on Monday, leaving at least 80 people under the rubble, according to state TV.
“After hours of emergency efforts, 30 people trapped under the rubble were extracted alive and taken to hospital to treat their injuries,” a deputy governor of the Khuzestan province told IRNA.
The number of people still trapped under the rubble remains unclear.


Yemeni army reports 4,276 Houthi truce violations

Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's government in Marib on November 16, 2021. (AFP)
Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's government in Marib on November 16, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 23 May 2022

Yemeni army reports 4,276 Houthi truce violations

Yemeni army reinforcements arrive to join fighters loyal to Yemen's government in Marib on November 16, 2021. (AFP)
  • Militia attacks continue on government troops in Marib, Taiz, Saada and Hajjah

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s army has said that the Iran-backed Houthis have violated a UN-brokered truce more than 4,276 times since day one by mobilizing fighters and launching drone and missile attacks on government troops, even as the militia indicated its acceptance of its renewal.

The truce, which is the longest since the war began, came into effect on April 2 and has led to reduced violence and deaths across the country, the UN said.

But the Yemeni army said the Houthis continued to gather heavy artillery, military vehicles, and fighters outside the strategic city of Marib, had attacked government troops in Marib, Taiz, Saada, and Hajjah, and created new military outposts.

Members of Yemen’s government forces search for explosive devices in a house in the village of Hays in the western province of Hodeida on Monday. (AFP)

“The Houthis are challenging the truce and international resolutions. They have not adhered to the truce,” Maj. Gen. Abdu Abdullah Majili, an army spokesperson, told Arab News on Monday.  

FASTFACT

The UN’s Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg is pushing the government and militia to extend the truce and put into place its unfulfilled components, including opening roads in Taiz and other provinces.

The Houthi violations come as the UN’s Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg pushes the government and militia to extend the truce and put into place its unfulfilled components, including opening roads in Taiz and other provinces.

On Sunday, the head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi Al-Mashat, said the movement would accept an extension of the truce with its opponents, boosting hopes of stopping hostilities across the country for another two or three months.

“We affirm that we are not against extending the truce, but what is not possible is the acceptance of any truce in which the suffering of our people continues,” the Houthi leader said.

In Aden, the head of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad Al-Alimi, also expressed his support on Saturday for current efforts by international mediators to extend the truce.

At the same time, activists and rights groups intensified their campaigns on the ground and on social media to highlight the grave consequences of the Houthi siege on thousands of Taiz residents.

The Abductees Mothers’ Association, an umbrella group for relatives of those abducted in Yemen, said Sunday that checkpoints manned by the Houthis outside Taiz had seized 417 people seeking to enter or leave the city since the beginning of the war.

The Houthis have laid a siege on Yemen’s third-largest city since early 2015 after failing to seize control of it due to strong resistance from troops and local fighters.

The Houthis barred people from driving through the main roads, deployed snipers, and planted landmines, forcing people into using dangerous and unpaved roads.  

“Civilians in #Taiz are forced to use alternative long, narrow, winding, and unsafe routes, which caused a lot of accidents that killed and injured hundreds of victims,” tweeted the American Center for Justice, a rights group established by Yemeni activists. It added that Houthi snipers indiscriminately gunned down civilians while they carried out their everyday activities.

“Most of the children sniped by Houthi snipers were targeted while fetching water, grazing the sheep, playing near their homes, or returning from schools,” the organization said.


Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘was forced to sign false confession at airport’

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (AFP)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (AFP)
Updated 23 May 2022

Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘was forced to sign false confession at airport’

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (AFP)
  • It’s a tool. So I am sure they will show that some day

LONDON: A British-Iranian charity worker who was detained in Tehran for almost six years says she was forced by Iranian officials to sign a false confession to spying before she was freed two months ago.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe said British government officials were present at Tehran airport when “under duress” she signed the false admission to spying.
She said she was told by Iranian officials that “you won’t be able to get on the plane” unless she signed.
“The whole thing of me signing the forced confession was filmed,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Monday.
“It’s a tool. So I’m sure they will show that some day.”
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Tulip Siddiq, who represents Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s home district in London, said the revelation raised “serious questions” for the British government.
She said Foreign Secretary Liz Truss “must set out in Parliament what she knew about this shocking revelation and what consequences it could have for my constituent.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family in Iran. She was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, but she was on vacation at the time of her arrest.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after she was convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups denied.
She had been under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran for the last two years.
She and another dual citizen, Anoosheh Ashoori, were released and flown back to the UK in March.
Their release came after Britain paid a £400 million ($503 million) debt to Iran stemming from a dispute over tanks that were ordered in the 1970s but were never delivered.