Recruitment of child soldiers in Syria rising despite fighting winding down – UN report

Almost 19,000 children were recruited, killed, maimed, subjected to sexual violence and abducted last year with 7,622 serving as soldiers

The United Nations annual survey on children in armed conflict has found that the recruitment in Syria of child soldiers by armed forces has risen substantially despite fighting winding down across the country.

The number of children fighting in Syria has risen from 813 in 2020 to 1,296 in 2021 and 1,696 in 2022, the report stated. Boys accounted for 1,593 fighters and girls 103.

The 48-page UN report, which surveys 25 countries and the Lake Chad Basin in Africa, says 18,890 children – 13,469 boys and 4,638 girls – were recruited, killed, maimed, subjected to sexual violence and abducted last year. Of them, 7,622 have served as child soldiers, with the greatest number of cases in Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Mali and Afghanistan.

Syrian civil society activist Bassam al-Ahmad said some minors are forcibly conscripted, while others sign up to earn a salary or join for ideological reasons or due to family or tribal connections. Some child soldiers have been sent out of Syria to fight in other conflicts, he said.


Half of the minors recruited in Syria last year were deployed in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a United States-supported group dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, which occupies and administers25 per cent of territory in the northeast of Syria.

The SDF provided ground troops for the US-led coalition which drove Islamic State from its base in the city of Raqqa and defeated and detained thousands of the movement’s fighters in Syria. The SDF, along with 900 US troops, continues to battle Islamic State fugitives in the Syrian countryside.

The UN reported the SDF-allied Kurdish Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement had 10 child soldiers in its ranks. However, Mr Ahmad said the number was closer to 50.

The UN report also found the Turkish-sponsored anti-government Syrian National Army recruited 611 children last year.

The army, which has deployed in Turkish-held enclaves in north and northwest Syria, is in partnership with al-Qaeda offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which has 383 child soldiers.

Anti-government fundamentalist factions listed by the UN recruited 123 children last year, unidentified factions 477 and Islamic State four. Syrian government forces included 15 minors and pro-government militias 10. Some 1,688 children were ordered into combat, the UN said.

While secretary general António Guterres welcomed dialogue with the Syrian government on the adoption of a protection plan, the UN has failed to rein in the wide use of child soldiers in the 30 per cent of the country not held by the government. The multiplicity of Syrian factions and the lack of control over their activities have made it impossible to end the use of child soldiers.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times