The faces of Syria's rebel fighters are getting younger
ALEPPO, Syria — The prayer room in the 12th-century mosque had the feel of a bachelor pad — cups of tea and coffee covered most surfaces, and cigarette butts were everywhere. A lanky teenager named Hussein Mansour plopped himself down. He placed a grenade and a small bag of pretzels on the table.
Hussein picked up the grenade again and pretended to pull the ring, looking around for a reaction. A fellow rebel fighter, Abu Musab, paused from sucking on a hookah pipe and gave the 16-year-old a disapproving look.
“I mean, he’s carrying a grenade and a 3-cent bag of chips,” he said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t fit — he’s too young.”
As the Syrian civil war rages on, hundreds of fatigued rebel fighters are deserting the ranks of the opposition. Many others are being killed daily. Their positions are increasingly filled by teenagers like Hussein.
Thirteen of Hussein's uncles and cousins have been killed fighting government forces. Now Hussein, whose father was one of the founders of al-Tawheed Brigade, carries the Kalashnikov used by one of his late cousins. He picks it up often, taking it apart and reassembling it, as if playing with a new toy.
Hussein took a break from fiddling with the rifle and motioned to the gun rack beside him. “What do you think these are, anti-aircraft weapons? These are just rifles my 6-year-old brother could shoot.”
They Are Resigned To Being Fighters
In a war that has already claimed more than 190,000 lives and each day brings new civilian casualties, boys like Hussein are resigned to dying one way or another. Most seem to live by the phrase often heard in rebel areas: “It’s all one death.”
The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates there are about 5,300 child fighters among the opposition, not including extremist groups, and 2,000 with pro-government forces. Most are between the ages of 14 and 17.
In June, Human Rights Watch released a report on the use of child soldiers. It accused Syrian armed groups of violating international law by enlisting children whose families have been killed.
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are two of the most extreme opposition groups fighting the Syrian government. Both have been called terrorist groups, and ISIL has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. It is trying to set up a country there, governed by its own strict version of Islamic law.
In recent weeks, ISIL released videos showing the murders of two American journalists and a British aid worker in Syria. ISIL has also been called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Enticing Children To Join
According to Human Rights Watch, the Nusra Front and ISIL have enlisted children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training. They have even recruited them to become suicide bombers
Many worry that as teenagers increasingly join the front lines, violence will become a permanent part of Syrian society.
“The horrors of Syria’s armed conflict are only made worse by throwing children into the front lines,” said Priyanka Motaparthy of Human Rights Watch.
Mainstream rebel groups such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front have policies that prohibit enlisting fighters younger than 18. In reality, however, the situation is so desperate that no willing fighter is turned away.
Hassan Suwaas is stationed on the same front line as his 14-year-old son, Omar.
Suwaas, who fights with the Islamic Front, reasoned that it was better than having his son join one of the extremist Islamist groups.
“The kid that grows up and sees a shell fall on him or on his neighbor,” he said, “is going to grow up and want to fight.”
Educations Put On Hold
Here at the front line where the rebel-held mosque sits, there are only sparse clashes; the line between rebels and government forces hasn’t changed for more than a year. Government soldiers stationed at the centuries-old citadel a few hundred feet away last tried to storm the mosque more than six months ago.
All the fighters are dressed in civilian clothes and most are in flip-flops, since they expect to spend their days lounging on worn sofas. They rotate four-hour shifts of watching 10 security televisions that monitor the perimeter of the mosque.
As others around him chatted and smoked, 16-year-old Majid stared at the TVs.
His father, who is stationed at another battle line in the city, was reluctant to allow his son to join the rebels. Only when his father’s friend, a rebel commander in Aleppo’s Old City, pleaded on Majid’s behalf did he relent. His mother still does not approve.
“I lied to her and told her that there are no (government) soldiers nearby,” Majid said. “She thinks I’m far away from the front line.”
Majid had just finished seventh grade when his school, near the citadel, was closed as the fighting took hold in the city. With his skinny arms folded across his chest, he insisted he would finish his education when the war was over.
Aamir Mansour, five years older and twice his size, turned to Majid, “Why, you think you’re going to live?”
“No,” Majid said quietly, knowing that was the answer expected.