by Lindsey Snell
In 2012, as the revolution in Syria exploded, Fajr Maaliki (a pseudonym) was 12 years old and in the 6th grade. Maaliki’s large extended family stretched across the Idlib countryside, and when the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed to fight against the Syrian government, many of his relatives joined. “Around 40 of the men in my family became FSA fighters. My father didn’t join the FSA, but he supported them.”
Maaliki was 13 years old when pro-government militias neared the outskirts of his village and he first took up arms. “I went with my cousins,” he recalled. “At this point, none of us had really had any training. It didn’t matter. We went and we fought.”
Maaliki was supposed to take an Arabic exam at school the day he went to his first battle. “I missed that exam and didn’t go back to school again,” he said. “When I got home that night, my mother cried and begged me not to fight again, but of course, I did.” Maaliki’s male relatives had no issue with his young age. Neither did his first FSA commander, who praised him for leaving school to join the fight.
Much of Maaliki’s teen years unfolded on Syrian battlefields. “There were some dangerous times. When I was 14 years old, I was fighting in a battle in the northern countryside of Aleppo. My faction was besieged by the Assad regime, and many of them were killed. I was stuck in one place for three days with one other boy my age. We ate from the garbage. When the siege was finally broken, I think we were both surprised to get out alive.”
Maaliki says roughly a dozen teenagers from his village joined the FSA in the first two years of the war. “Fighting seemed more important than anything else. Back then, there weren’t as many child soldiers in the Syrian opposition as there are now, but it wasn’t uncommon,” he said.
In September 2014, ISIS was approaching the peak of its power in Syria. The group had started to fight against the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, despite having previously allied with both in the fight against Syrian government forces. While embedded with the FSA on a reporting trip, I visited the frontlines against ISIS in the northern countryside of Aleppo for an MSNBC documentary. As I filmed the fighters preparing for battle, I saw a boy who looked no older than 13 years old carrying an AK-47. “Can you ask him how old he is?” I asked one of the English-speaking fighters.
“This is my brother,” he replied. “He’s 17. He just looks younger.”
In 2014, the United States launched the Train and Equip Program, which aimed to provide training and weaponry to select “moderate” factions of the FSA to enable them to fight ISIS. One of the key factions selected was Harakat Hazm, which had thousands of fighters in and around Aleppo and Idlib.
In March 2015, Al-Nusra Front attacked Harakat Hazm, effectively dissolving the faction. The weapons and other aid given to Hazm by the US government were stolen by Nusra. Nusra became more powerful in Idlib and Aleppo, erecting checkpoints outside of their own territories and exerting more control over FSA factions.
While ISIS’ brutality became universally known, both through its actions in Syria and Iraq and in the slickly-produced propaganda films it proudly disseminated, Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, seemed almost gentle by comparison. “Nusra was kinder to the civilians than ISIS, and they offered higher salaries and better training for fighters than the Free Syrian Army, so they became more popular. Many FSA fighters left to join Nusra,” Fajr Maaliki said. “And then, Nusra started to recruit children.”
Maaliki said that Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi Arabian salafist cleric who served as a leader in Al-Nusra Front, became a fixture at mosques in Maaliki’s area. “He would come with Nusra fighters from each neighborhood, and they would meet with men to encourage them to join Nusra. They held camps to preach to local children and recruit them to fight, too.”
In a video filmed at a youth indoctrination event in Idlib, Muhaysini said that boys joining Nusra should be at least 15 years old. Maaliki says he personally knew several boys who began fighting for Nusra when they were 13 or 14. “In 2016, when the major battle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition for Aleppo started, my FSA faction went there to fight. We were fighting alongside Al-Nusra Front, and I ran into a Nusra member I’d met before. His name was Mustafa Waasel. He was killed by shelling in that battle, in the first week of June 2016. He was 14 years old when he died.”
Maaliki continued to fight for the Syrian opposition as the years dragged on. “2016 and 2017 were the hardest years for me. The Syrian opposition factions were not paying fighters consistently. I couldn’t buy shoes. I could barely buy food. I was 16 and 17 years old at the time,” he said.
Then, in December 2017, most factions of the Free Syrian Army were merged into the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA), which was under the direct supervision and support of the Turkish government. “After this, the payments to fighters were made more consistently. We were hopeful that things would improve for the Syrian opposition. But then, the Afrin operation began,” Maaliki said.
In January 2018, Turkey launched Operation “Olive Branch,” attacking the predominantly Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria. The Turkish Air Force bombed the city, and the Turkish-backed SNA factions unleashed a ground offensive. “As Turkey started recruiting more men to fill these SNA factions for their Afrin operation, they started recruiting more children, too,” Maaliki said. “And that continues to this day. There are so many children among the SNA factions now.”
Maaliki says the SNA fighters were misled about the true purpose of the operation in Afrin. “The Turks told us the YPG [a predominantly Kurdish, US-allied militia] and ISIS were working together to fight us from Afrin. They said the YPG wanted to do what Israel has done; to create a state within Syria just for the Kurds, and that they would try to occupy Idlib, and the Aleppo countryside, all the way to Latakia.
“But when I was in Afrin after the invasion began, I saw how the SNA factions robbed the civilians, and kidnapped them, and raped women,” Maaliki continued. “I saw Turkey occupy Afrin. We were not fighting Assad in Afrin. The battle had nothing to do with our revolution against the Syrian regime.”
Eventually, Maaliki was assigned to work as a prison guard in Afrin. “There was a very old man arrested by the Hamza Division [faction of the SNA],” he recalled. “He was too old to even walk properly. I asked one of the commanders why he had been arrested, and he said the man planned to plant a bomb in one of our military points. I knew this wasn’t true. I could tell by looking at the old man that he wouldn’t be able to do anything like this.
“When I was left alone with the man, I asked him what really happened,” Maaliki continued. “He told me the Hamza Division men had stormed his home for the purpose of stealing it. They arrested him, but before they brought him to the prison, they raped his daughter in the next room.”
The prisoner gave Maaliki the exact location of his home in the Ashrafieh neighborhood or Afrin. “Go there,” the prisoner told him. “You will see that there are soldiers in my home. You will know I am telling the truth.”
A short time later, Maaliki left the SNA, returned to Idlib. He considers himself an activist now, and he closely monitors the situation in his and other opposition-held areas. “Right now, I have estimated that there are more than 500 children between the different factions,” Maaliki said. “It is because of their extreme poverty. They aren’t fighting for a cause. They are just trying to survive. Turkey is preying on all of them.”
Maaliki began collecting photos and information on child militants in the SNA. “I felt bad for them, because I was a child who fought, and I don’t want them to have the experiences I did. But they’re in a worse situation than I was. When the war started, I could read. Most of the child fighters today cannot read. Many of their fathers have died fighting. They are being taken advantage of by Turkey and the corrupt SNA commanders.”
Before Maaliki left Afrin in 2018, he recalls walking by a headquarters for the Sultan Murad faction of the SNA. “I heard music and laughing, so I stopped to look in the windows,” he said. “I thought I saw two women dancing in front of three Sultan Murad commanders. But once I looked more closely, I saw that they were young boys dressed in women’s clothing.” Maaliki said that once the men began raping the two boys, he could no longer bear to watch and fled the scene.
Maaliki says the practice of Syrian opposition commanders sexually abusing male children has existed since the beginning of the war in Syria, but that it is more common now than ever before. He cites Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan conflict as a major factor.
In December 2019, Turkey struck a deal with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and began deploying thousands of Syrian National Army militants to Tripoli and Misrata. In interviews conducted with Libya-based SNA members, they revealed that the GNA forces have gone to great lengths to keep the majority of them apart from the local civilian population.
“Now that Turkey has sent the SNA factions to Libya, there are SNA commanders who don’t have access to women,” Maaliki said. “They are away from their wives. And they have brought young boys to Libya who are there for the sole purpose of being sexually used by them. They call them al-firakh [baby birds]. The practice is completely accepted among the SNA, and the young boys don’t know any better.”
In March 2020, a report by human rights organization Syrians for Truth and Justice alleged that Turkey recruited child soldiers to send them to Libya. Maaliki bristles at its mention. “Each SNA faction that sent men Libya had a quota of fighters to fill. So naturally, child soldiers ended up among the militants in Libya,” he said.
“It is not that Turkey recruited the children for Libya. It is that for years, there have been child soldiers in the SNA and the FSA. This issue existed long before Turkey sent the first Syrian to Libya, and it will exist long after the last Syrian leaves Libya,” Maaliki said. “Do the Syrian children who are fighting only matter when they leave Syria? Because it should be clear that when Turkey sent SNA to Azerbaijan [to support Azerbaijani forces in their attack on Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020], there were children among them, as well.”
Fajr Maaliki doesn’t have high hopes for the future of Syria or its youth. “Our revolution is dead. The Syrian National Army are just mercenaries for Turkey. Erdogan has sent us to Libya, to Azerbaijan. There are many rumors about where the SNA will be sent next. The young generation, those who were babies when the war started, are illiterate, uneducated, and naive. I think they will remain slaves to Turkey.”