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.”


North Africa and Middle East hit 10-year low in refugees as conflicts deescalate 

North Africa and Middle East hit 10-year low in refugees as conflicts deescalate 
Updated 19 May 2022

North Africa and Middle East hit 10-year low in refugees as conflicts deescalate 

North Africa and Middle East hit 10-year low in refugees as conflicts deescalate 
  • IDMC report noted the numbers of internally displaced people in the region remained ‘concerningly high’
  • IDMC Director Alexandra Bilak: ‘Peacebuilding and development initiatives are needed to resolve the underlying challenges that hold displaced peoples’ lives in limbo’

LONDON: North Africa and the Middle East have hit a 10-year low in refugees as conflicts in Libya, Iraq and Syria deescalated, according to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre. 

Nonetheless, the IDMC report noted the numbers of internally displaced people in the region remained “concerningly high,” warning the trend toward long-term displacement would “never be reversed” without safe and sustainable conditions for IDP returnees. 

IDMC Director Alexandra Bilak said: “Peacebuilding and development initiatives are needed to resolve the underlying challenges that hold displaced peoples’ lives in limbo.”

Furthermore, the report pointed to “unprecedented numbers” of people being displaced by violence in Afghanistan and Myanmar over the course of 2021, with similarly high numbers for Somalia and South Sudan. 

Globally, the number of displaced people reached 38 million, 94 percent of whom were forced to flee from weather-related disasters, with more than 25 million under the age of 18. 

While contending more data was needed to assess longer-term impacts, Bilak said it was clear protecting and supporting displaced children and young people was crucial for the future, noting that “a healthy happy child” would be more likely to contribute to an “equitable society and functioning economy.”

She added: “Children and young people are agents of change. Recognising them as such is vital to protect development gains and reduce the risk of future crises. Preparing the world of tomorrow must start with their active participation and leadership.”


Vessel attacked off Yemen; security firm reports attempted boarding

Vessel attacked off Yemen; security firm reports attempted boarding
A US Navy’s Fifth Fleet spokesperson told Reuters the navy is aware of an incident in the Red Sea. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 May 2022

Vessel attacked off Yemen; security firm reports attempted boarding

Vessel attacked off Yemen; security firm reports attempted boarding
  • A vessel has been attacked 34 nautical miles (63 km) south west of Yemen’s Hodeidah, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organization (UKMTO) reports

A vessel has been attacked 34 nautical miles (63 km) south west of Yemen’s Hodeidah, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organization (UKMTO) reported on its website on Thursday, adding an investigation is underway.
British maritime security company Ambrey Intelligence said the incident involved a sailing vessel that managed to escape an attempted boarding from occupants of skiffs, and that the crew have been reported safe.
It said the vessel was “likely Hong Kong-flagged,” but did not give further details.
A US Navy’s Fifth Fleet spokesperson told Reuters the navy is aware of an incident in the Red Sea. 


‘Elections did not undermine Hezbollah but gives Lebanon chance to reorganize’ says spokesman for the American Task Force on Lebanon

‘Elections did not undermine Hezbollah but gives Lebanon chance to reorganize’ says spokesman for the American Task Force on Lebanon
Updated 19 May 2022

‘Elections did not undermine Hezbollah but gives Lebanon chance to reorganize’ says spokesman for the American Task Force on Lebanon

‘Elections did not undermine Hezbollah but gives Lebanon chance to reorganize’ says spokesman for the American Task Force on Lebanon

CHICAGO: The result of Lebanon’s elections should not lead people to believe that Hezbollah has been undermined but should be seen as an opportunity to restructure the country’s political dynamics, a spokesman for the American Task Force on Lebanon said on Wednesday.
Jean AbiNader, ATFL vice president for policy, explained that Hezbollah coalition partners such as the conservative Christian Free Patriotic Movement, headed by President Aoun’s son-in-law Gibran Bassile, lost seats, weakening the Hezbollah-led group.
AbiNader said that America needs to “de-couple” US policies toward Lebanon from US policies toward Iran. He said that Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US, must decide, too, if it is Lebanese or an arm of Iranian regional influence. But Hezbollah did not lose influence in the election, he said, only its coalition partnership.

“That’s really critical for people to understand. Hezbollah hasn’t lost. Its coalition lost. One is the Free Patriotic Movement, which is President Michel Aoun’s party now run by Gebran Bassile,” AbiNader said during an interview on The Ray Hanania Radio show broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.
“They lost seats. The biggest losers, of course, are the Sunnis because they didn’t contest the election. A number of Sunni candidates won. That’s great. Some pro-Syrian candidates lost. Some outliers who are not members of any coalition also lost. What you have here is Amal, Hezbollah, the kernel of their 27 seats is intact. They will look to Marada and other organizations to join with them in a coalition. But regardless of what happens, if — and this is a big if — if Lebanese forces can pull together with the Druze, and can pick up with the independents and the anti-traditional leaders, they will have a slim majority in parliament.”
He said that the political balance will “shift all the time,” but conceded, “it is definitely a time of uncertainty.”
AbiNader said that the election has created an opportunity for the Lebanese people to form a new coalition that will focus on confronting the corruption that has blocked a full investigation of the Aug. 4, 2020 explosion that killed more than 218 people, injured 7,000 and made more than 300,000 people homeless.
“The explosion “has never really been investigated,” AbiNader said. Questions still remain about how much of the ammonium nitrate that exploded still remains and where it is. He said that the explosion was estimated to reflect the power of about 500 tons of ammonium nitrate. But, he said, there was more than 2,700 tons at the port and the whereabouts of the 2,200 tons remains a dangerous mystery.
“If we get a new government in Lebanon, the investigation will go forward,” AbiNader predicted, noting that two of the government ministers who have called for an investigation were re-elected.
“There is no full investigation in Lebanon of that bombing, so far,” AbiNader said.
He said that the Lebanese continue to live under the fear that more violence could take place.

“There is that fear and the fear is how do we set up a government that can function that isn’t a provocation to Hezbollah. And that is a real challenge because the Lebanese forces, the largest Christian party, that will form an anti-Hezbollah coalition has to do it more than on anti-grounds,” AbiNader said.
“They have to be pro-something. That’s my concern — that Lebanese forces will see their votes as a mandate to be aggressive and antagonistic to Hezbollah. That shouldn’t be the target. The target should be an independent judiciary, complete the investigations, fix the economy, put money back in people’s pockets, and diminish corruption. That’s what the challenges should be because that is what people are tired of. Hezbollah will gradually lose its attraction as it loses its raison d’etre, which is to protect Lebanon against Israel.”
AbiNader argued that Hezbollah, which is a political force and a powerful militia, must decide whether it is Lebanese or is a force for Iran.
America, he added, must see past Hezbollah in helping Lebanon to recover and rebuild. The Biden administration, AbiNader said, has been very supportive of Lebanon, but America needs to do more.

“Let’s be frank. The United States has not really been very smart about the Middle East in terms of their politics. They have been trying to pivot out of the region since Obama,” AbiNader said.
“The relationships with the Lebanese and other groups have been hard won. And they have usually seen Lebanon through an Iranian lens or an Israeli lens and not Lebanon for itself. And that’s really what we have been fighting to get over the past 20 years is a Lebanese policy that is built on US-Lebanon interests and not a Lebanon being seen as something affected by the Iran negotiations or by Israel’s security.”
The challenge, he said, remains in Congress, where some members continue to believe that Lebanon is “run by Hezbollah and Iran.”
“We had to show them time and time again that Lebanon has been a good partner with the United States,” AbiNader said.
“The Congress has increased the amount of humanitarian assistance to Lebanon. It has increased the amount of assistance to the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces),” AbiNader said.
“It has made very strong indications of what the US would like Lebanon to do, for example, vis a vis the elections in terms of being free, fair and on time, which helped a lot. It has helped Lebanon with the World Bank, in terms of Lebanon receiving certain loans, for example, to subsidize wheat. So, I think the United States is doing a lot. But can it do more? We always think it should.”
AbiNader acknowledged that a stronger case must be made to the Lebanese people explaining what the US is doing for Lebanon, given the pressures of the Russian war in Ukraine, economic issues with China, and immigration challenges on America’s southern border.
AbiNader said that Lebanon is grateful that US President Joseph Biden has restored the financial support that was stripped by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

  • The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. EST in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700. It is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. EST in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 radio and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080.

 For the podcast and more information on the radio show visit: www.arabnews.com/rayradioshow  

Yemeni FM meets with Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, urges to put pressure on Houthis

Yemeni FM meets with Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, urges to put pressure on Houthis
Updated 19 May 2022

Yemeni FM meets with Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, urges to put pressure on Houthis

Yemeni FM meets with Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, urges to put pressure on Houthis

Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs ODAWARA Kiyoshi met with the Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak on Wednesday to discuss ways to enhance bilateral ties between the two countries.

During their meeting, Mubarak praised the “distinguished and historical” bilateral relations between Japan and Yemen, which extend to several fields including political, economic and developmental.

He also expressed the Yemeni government’s appreciation of Japan’s long-term support to the humanitarian response in Yemen, as well as efforts aimed at supporting the peace process.

Mubarak praised the strength of bilateral relations, and Japan’s support for the Presidential Leadership Council, stressing that the Council is strenuously working to reach a comprehensive political solution to the Yemeni crisis and bring Peace to the county through carrying out its role in fulfilling the peace process led by the United Nations, in reference to the concessions made by the government for the success of the armistice agreement.

The minister reiterated his government’s pledges under the truce to stop hostilities and facilitate the attainment of a political solution to the Yemeni crisis that meets the aspirations of the country’s people, urging Japan and the international community to apply pressure on the Houthi militia to complete the implementation of the truce agreement by lifting the seven-year siege of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. Mubarak also called for the need to use the revenues from oil shipments coming from the port of Hodeidah to pay public sector salaries.

Mubarak added that the food crisis that the world is witnessing has exacerbated the existing food-security issues in Yemen and that the country has become “more threatened than ever before to reach the brink of famine.” He called on Japan to provide assistance through the provision of food commodities, especially imports of wheat, in order to enhance food security.

This article was originally published on Arab News Japan


Israel fires missile defenses near Lebanon after misidentification

Israel fires missile defenses near Lebanon after misidentification
Updated 19 May 2022

Israel fires missile defenses near Lebanon after misidentification

Israel fires missile defenses near Lebanon after misidentification
  • “Due to a misidentification, the air defense soldiers launched interceptors and as a result an alert was activated,” said the military

JERUSALEM: Israel activated its missile defenses on Thursday after mistakenly identifying a threat near the border with Lebanon, the Israeli military said.
The incident also set off air raid sirens in parts of northern Israel.
“Due to a misidentification, the air defense soldiers launched interceptors and as a result an alert was activated,” the military said.