With nearly 300,000 people fleeing bombing and fighting in and around Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province since mid-December, civilians in the area told The New Humanitarian they had taken everything they own with them. Fearing the rebels will be unable or unwilling to resist the approaching forces, some said they had even torched their homes after emptying them, to deny President Bashar al-Assad’s fighters any extra benefits of taking over the territory.
This latest wave of displacement has been especially difficult. It has coincided with heavy winter rains that have drenched the already overcrowded camps that dot Idlib.
Abu Ghadir – a father of six displaced several times and now staying in the village of al-Bira in northern Idlib – saw no future for himself or the other three million people who find themselves increasingly trapped in Syria’s northwest. “This is our end; the end for Idlib and its people,” he said.
Accompanied by heavy aerial bombing, the Syrian army and Russian forces have been accelerating a months-long ground offensive on Idlib. The only adjacent border – with Turkey – is closed, and while more and more people are trying to smuggle themselves across it, others, particularly minors, are joining rebel ranks to fight what they see as a struggle for existence.
Tahrir al-Sham is listed as a terrorist organization in the United States, UK, Canada, and Turkey. Thus concerns about resources reaching the extremist rebels severely limit available social services and emergency aid to the region. Videos produced by a recruitment and fundraising campaign organized by clerics working for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham show children rushing the stage as preachers rouse locals to join the ranks of the “holy warriors”.
Minors are currently training in several locations in Idlib, according to an official with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The official said that training camps were underground, due to fear of coalition airstrikes. He said there were special training camps for “cubs”, meaning youth or teenage boys, but would not provide additional details. Another official with the group confirmed that children as young as 17 can join and undergo training.
There are various international prohibitions against the use of soldiers under 18. The International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute defines “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime.
[The New Humanitarian]