Syrian opposition groups recruit child soldiers in Idlib

IDLIB, Syria (North Press) –  Child soldiers in the ranks of extremist Turkish-backed armed opposition groups in northwest Syria’s Idlib say that they have undergone military and sharia (Islamic law) courses before participating in military operations, while people say that the extremist da’ees (who call for embracing Islam) offer material and moraltemptations to attract children in order to recruit them.

Despite the unavailability of accurate statistics on child soldiers among the opposition, an informed source from the armed opposition groups told North Press, “a huge number of children are recruited among Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other armed groups.”

On Sunday, ten-year-old Mustafa Kara, a recruiter for Turkish-backed armed opposition groups, was killed in a traffic accident.

Kara, a child of Turkmen origin who recruited for the Second Coastal Division of the Turkish-backed Syrian Turkmen Brigades in Latakia countryside, died in a traffic accident in Zawiya Mountain in the southern countryside of Idlib, a North Press correspondent reported. 

Children recruited by the armed groups receive a monthly salary of about 300 Turkish lira, while those in HTS receive $50 to $150, according to the source.

16-year-old Yasser Abdulrahim, an IDP from the western countryside of Aleppo, is now working in an HTS weapons manufacturing plant in Jisr al-Shughour, southwest of Idlib.

“The reason why I left school and joined the armed groups was to get a monthly salary amounting to $100,” Abdulrahim told North Press.

“Through the past years, I learned how to booby-trap vehicles, and I also became very familiar with all kinds of explosives,” he added.

In May 2020, the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization said in a report that HTS recruited dozens of children to its ranks by providing material incentives.

Human Rights Watch stated in several reports during the past years that both the Syrian government and armed groups have committed blatant violations by recruiting children and using them in combat.

The parents of these children do not dare to ask for their release out of fear of retaliation and the practices of the armed groups.

15-year-old Mustafa al-Omar, a child recruiter in the Sham Legion, said that he was “seeking to help his family,” and his father, who refused to allow him to join the militant group, could not bring him back home.

Al-Omar goes to the vicinity of the town of Afs, east of Idlib, for a week each month to fulfill his tasks as a recruiter.

17-year-old Salim al-Hameed (a pseudonym), from the countryside of Idlib, said that he and three of his friends joined HTS three years ago and immediately received a month-and-a-half long military and sharia course.

Al-Hameed participated in a battle against the Syrian government forces in al-Ays, south of Aleppo.

He added that he lost one of his 16-year-old friends, while others were wounded.

Local residents believe that the da’ees affiliated with the extremist groups in Idlib and its countryside attract children to their sharia and military course by calling them to jihad (struggle) and offering incentives.

30-year-old Ali al-Hassan, a social worker in Idlib, said in a previous statement to North Press that “HTS launched huge well-studied and funded campaigns to recruit children. It mainly depended on emotional and enthusiastic aspects through festivals in most of the cities, towns, and villages, which were attended by sheikhs and da’ees promoting the idea.”

Al-Hassan attributed the success of such campaigns to “the lack of awareness in society, the absence of educational institutions, and displacement.”

Reporting by Bara’ al-Shami