Child recruitment casts shadow over Syrian Kurds' push for global legitimacy

Failed efforts to secure the return of a recent spate of Kurdish youth recruited to fight in northeast Syria shows the delicate path the region's autonomous administration must navigate in its relations with the PKK.

al-monitor Fighters from the Kurdish Women's Protection units (YPJ) participate in a military parade on March 27, 2019, celebrating the total elimination of the Islamic State (IS) group's last bastion in eastern Syria, in the northwestern city of Hasakah, in the province of the same name. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images).

Dec 7, 2020

Rawan Aleku, a 16-year-old Syrian Kurdish high school student, has been missing from her hometown of Dirbasiya since Oct 8. In multiple interviews with the local press, her father, Umran, claimed that she was kidnapped by an armed group who then handed the girl to “another group.” He has appealed to Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the “highest authority” in northeast Syria, “to undertake his humanitarian duty.”

“Return my daughter Rawan Aleku to me, if you are honest. The pain of her disappearance is killing me. I’m fighting to get her back whatever it costs me, even my life,” Umran wrote in a Facebook post Nov. 10.

Rawan is among dozens of minors who have been either willingly or forcibly recruited by Kurdish rebels to fight in battles spanning Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, all home to large Kurdish minorities. Kurds have long accepted that some of their sons and daughters would have to be given up to the “cause” — to wrest their rights from brutal regimes that have denied their existence and bloodily silenced those who dared to call themselves Kurds. Lovingly framed photographs of “martyred” children in their uniforms are proudly displayed in many a home. Families of the fallen are accorded a privileged status. But in northeast Syria, the mood is shifting as a growing number of Kurds aspire to a more stable life away from war. And a handful of parents like Umran are beginning to air their resentment publicly.

Between God and a hard place

“I have tried every avenue within the autonomous administration’s institutions to get my daughter back,” Umran wrote in the local online Arknews. “But it appears that Rojava isn’t ruled by anyone, but rather a higher power, God,” he wrote, using the Kurdish name for the Kurdish-majority regions of Syria, “Because everyone keeps directing me ‘higher,’ saying that decisions are coming ‘from above,’ and ‘we don’t know anything.’ Who’s above except God? I want to call specifically on Gen. Mazlum (Kobane) to get personally involved and end my suffering. You are the last remaining national hope for us,” the anguished father implored.

Kobane, who successfully oversaw the coalition-led campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, is — without question — the most popular and powerful man in the Kurdish-run enclave. But can he deliver? The question goes to the heart of the power struggles pitting a bewildering array of Kurdish factions against each other and Washington’s efforts to help the autonomous administration establish political legitimacy in the face of fierce pushback from Turkey.

The armed group Umran alluded to is the "Ciwanen Soresger," or Revolutionary Youth. They are believed to take their cues from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the rebel group that has been fighting Turkey since 1984, initially for Kurdish independence and now for political autonomy.

The “other group” to which Umran says Rawan was handed could be either the PKK or its all-female Syrian offshoot, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

The YPJ and its male counterpart the People's Protection Units (YPG) form the backbone of Kobane’s SDF. Rights groups and the UN have called out all three over the recruitment of minors for combat in violation of international law.

On June 29, 2019, Kobane signed an action plan with Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba in Geneva “to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, to identify and separate boys and girls currently within its ranks, and to put in place preventative protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use.”

A month later, the autonomous administration opened the Child Protection Office to combat child recruitment, among other things.

More than a year on, and in an apparent challenge to Kobane’s authority, there are persistent reports of boys and girls under the age of 18 being recruited by the Revolutionary Youth. They are said to report to senior PKK commanders inside Rojava.

Fuad, another member of the Aleku family, told Al-Monitor that his nephew Lewend was only 13 when he was spirited off by the PKK in 2015 and taken to their headquarters in the Qandil Mountains bridging Iraq and Iran. “They trained him for two years and sent him as a soldier back to Syria. He was martyred in Deir ez-Zor in 2019,” Fuad said.

There are no formal estimates for the number of children who have been forcibly recruited in northeast Syria. The UN said that between January and July of this year, 51 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 had been removed from the ranks of the YPJ and housed in a rehabilitation center, while 18 boys were in the process of being released at the time of reporting.

The Child Protection Office said it had received 50 complaints since opening its doors and had returned as many as 15 children to their families. Kobane said in a July interview that he regarded the practice as unacceptable and that perpetrators would be punished. But there have been no prosecutions so far.

Parents who speak up against the Revolutionary Youth face threats and intimidation, according to several Syrian Kurds interviewed by Al-Monitor. None was willing to be identified by name for fear of retribution. “These child protection offices release one child, and the young men in the background go and take 10 or 15 children and send them to training centers,” said one, adding, however, that he believed the Child Protection Office was sincere in its efforts but could only do so much.

“Revolutionary Youth monitor children through putting on events — sports, recreation, music. They try to exploit children that way, and no one can say anything. No one can raise his voice or complain,” one father told Al-Monitor. “Let’s say there is a soccer match. The Revolutionary Youth will be present at these types of events. They’ll take note of people. Those boys, what are their hobbies? What do they like to do? If any child there is open to the idea of joining, they’ll entice them. ‘What do you guys want?’ they’ll ask. 'We’ll give it to you. Soccer, ping pong, whatever you want.'”

Hosheng Ossi, a Syrian Kurd and former PKK sympathizer who now lives in exile in Europe, says that the Revolutionary Youth is similar to PKK-linked armed youth militias operating in Turkey that keep popping up under different names. “All report directly to the PKK’s military wing, the Kurdistan Popular Resistance Forces,” he asserted in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor.

The Patriotic Revolutionary Youth movement, for example, led the urban insurrection in 2015 across towns and cities in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast region. Entire neighborhoods were pulverized and hundreds of civilians were killed when the Turkish army responded with savagely indiscriminate force. The UN said Turkey’s abuses amounted to “war crimes.” Yet the PKK was also sharply criticized by many of its supporters for putting civilians at risk by shifting its battle to population centers. Over half a million people were forcibly displaced, and Sur — the historic heart of the Kurds’ unofficial capital Diyarbakir and home to a magnificent Armenian church and an Ottoman-era mosque — was destroyed.

A Syrian Kurdish media activist in Rojava said the Revolutionary Youth threatened him because of his critical reporting. “Mazlum is against child recruitment, but he can’t stop it. Why not? Because military cadres in the PKK are directing child recruitment via the Revolutionary Youth,” the media activist told Al-Monitor. Kobane, he noted, “has power over the SDF as an organization. But the PKK military figures, mostly Turks and Iranians, they don’t abide by his decisions."

A PKK spokesman contacted via WhatsApp in Qandil declined to comment on PKK links with the Revolutionary Youth or the presence of senior ranking PKK commanders inside Rojava.

Nasser Afrin, a member of the general coordinating committee for the Revolutionary Youth Movement, also dodged Al-Monitor’s questions about whether it took its orders from the PKK. But he rebuffed suggestions that the group partook in child recruitment. “We are not a military organization that enables us to recruit children. We totally deny it,” he said.

While some Revolutionary Youth members serve on some of the autonomous administration's youth committees, “We are an independent youth group; we are not part of the autonomous administration, there's a difference” Afrin asserted. “Our goal is to be able to organize youth across all areas of northeast Syria, educated youth, youth interested in sports, culture, employed, unemployed. Meaning all youth everywhere..”

Afrin acknowledged that part of the effort to “develop the thought, the talents, the psychology of youth” in communes across the Kurdish zone included “military exercises.” He claimed this was to enable the youth to “protect themselves” and to “develop young people’s potential.”

Queried about Rawan, Afrin responded, “I have no idea about that.”

Kobane’s office did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment as to Rawan’s whereabouts.

An undated photo of Rawan Aleku’s ID card, KMN TV

The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Many of the autonomous administration’s leaders, including Kobane, were drawn from the PKK's ranks. This has served as justification for Turkey’s continued assaults against the Syrian Kurdish entity and pushes US-Turkish ties into the abyss. As Ankara sees things, its NATO ally is partnered with terrorists who pose an existential threat to Turkey.

Washington has sought to allay Turkish concerns, claiming initially that its partnership with the SDF was “tactical, temporary and transactional,” and limited to the fight against IS. But the continued presence of US troops since the fall of Baghouz, the jihadis’ last remaining patch of territory last spring, has deepened Turkish paranoia about Washington’s plans. The abiding worry in the Turkish security establishment is that the United States and its European allies are bent on establishing an independent Kurdish state that will nibble away at Turkey.

The outgoing US administration’s efforts to appease Turkey took a Machiavellian turn in October 2019 when President Donald Trump allowed Turkish troops to invade a large swath of Kurdish-run territory including the border towns of Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad and ordered US troops to withdraw to clear the way. Russian and regime troops moved into the border areas vacated by the Americans who moved deeper south, upending balances in the Kurdish-run zone.

Yankee stay on!

Getting US troops to remain in Rojava is Kobane’s priority. However modest — and precarious — their presence, unlike that of the Russians, insulates the Kurds against attacks from the regime and IS, but not against Turkey. So what could be done to get Turkey to back off? Kobane came up with an idea: reach out to the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), a group of Syrian Kurdish parties with close ties to the Turkish-supported Syrian opposition and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) wing of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.

Peace with the KNC serves several important purposes. It would broaden the autonomous administration’s public support, lubricate relations with the KRG and serve as a backdoor for improving relations with Turkey. It would also, at least in theory, dilute the PKK's influence. This would in turn make it easier for US troops to remain in the northeast, melt Turkish resistance to the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) participation in UN-facilitated talks to determine Syria’s future, and expand Kobane’s room for maneuver until these talks come to fruition. And that won’t be anytime soon.

Kobane succeeded in convincing Washington to broker talks for a power-sharing agreement with the KNC that kicked off in April. In a recent interview with Al-Monitor, he acknowledged that he desired detente with Turkey and was ready to talk with Ankara “without any preconditions.”

On paper, there is quite a bit of progress toward finalizing the text of what will be called the Qamishli Declaration. The document builds on an earlier set of principles agreed upon between the sides in 2014 when Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader, sponsored a second — and unsuccessful — round of talks between the KNC and the PYD.

One of the stickiest issues for example, deciding the KNC and the PYD’s respective share of members on a proposed Kurdish Shura Council, has been agreed upon with plenty of prodding from US diplomats on the ground. Many credit Kobane for continuously accommodating the KNC’s demands when it's clearly the lesser power. A well-placed source told Al-Monitor, “The KNC is asking for 50% of what the PYD has but is not willing to give anything that they have in return.”

“For the PYD and for Mazlum, this is an effort worth pursuing anyway because they are interested in reforming the self-administration, they are interested in international legitimacy and they hope it would lead to a role for them in the [UN-mentored] political process — but there is no guarantee for them that it would,” the source added.

However, the one point on which the talks keep getting stuck is the PKK. With its affiliates like the Revolutionary Youth, the PKK acts in ways that at times undermine but also bolster Kobane. Indeed, many argue that the PKK is the "real power" in Rojava, and that it decides how much latitude to grant him and the autonomous administration.

Child recruitment bolsters this narrative and feeds Turkey's efforts to delegitimize the Kurds' quest for equal rights. It also causes resentment among the KNC's conservative base. Rawan Aleku's family is known to be sympathetic to the KNC.

Kobane confirmed to Al-Monitor that the KNC insists that the Qamishli Declaration contain wording that specifically refers to the PKK and states that the autonomous administration and its affiliates disavow all connections to the group. He has refused, saying the autonomous administration will not declare support or hostility to any group as part of the agreement.

Washington has also long pressed Kobane to “distance” himself from the PKK, not least because their presence in Rojava serves as justification for Turkey’s repeated attacks and poisons US relations.

The catch is that Mazlum and many senior figures in the autonomous administration joined the PKK’s ranks when its now-imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, ran the insurgency out of Syria. Washington is perfectly aware of this yet feigns ignorance. In 1998, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s late father, Hafez, expelled the PKK leader when the Turkish army threatened to invade. Ocalan was captured soon after — with the CIA’s help — and has been kept in a prison island off the coast of Istanbul ever since.

Coming full circle

During his 19 years in Syria, Ocalan built what is now regarded as one of the most resilient and sophisticated guerrilla outfits in recent history, one that has withstood NATO’s second-largest army for 36 years. His message of mobilizing and empowering women has spawned fawning coverage in the Western media.

Assad Senior gave the PKK sanctuary for two reasons. One was to redirect the ire of Syria’s own restive Kurds to their other big oppressor, Turkey, from whence many had fled in the early 20th century. The other was to use the PKK as a lever to pressure Turkey into releasing Syria’s fair share of water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which irrigate the country’s breadbasket, the Jazirah region.

The Assad regime’s Kurdish chickens have now come home to roost. Kobane is a globally acclaimed figure who has spoken to Trump over the telephone, while Ilham Ahmed, who heads the SDF’s civilian arm, has been received by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Jazirah region and the country’s main dams and oil fields are now under Kurdish control and protected by US forces. Turkey occupies large swaths of northern Syria with its Sunni rebel allies. Unfazed and ever recalcitrant, Assad Junior has spurned the Kurds’ demands for a fair deal.

Yet one of Ankara’s worst fears is that they could yet strike one and team up, with Russia and Iran’s backing, against Turkey once again. It follows that Turkey might view a power-sharing arrangement between the PYD and the KNC that would eventually encompass Arabs in the northeast, all under US protection, as a lesser evil.

But there are few signs that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is interested, even though Kobane has signaled privately that PKK cadres within the civilian administration need to be gently eased out. Already by assuming a co-sponsorship role along with the United States in the Kurdish unity talks, Kobane has effectively cast himself as independent of the PKK and the PYD. Not only that, he announced for the first time via Al-Monitor that should this be of benefit to Rojava and his people and, provided that the Turks were sincere, he would be willing to mediate between Ankara and the PKK.

It wouldn’t be a first. Amed Dicle, a veteran Kurdish reporter, revealed in a groundbreaking book about the Turkish state’s secret talks with the PKK that a Turkish colonel had met with the PKK’s top man in Europe on the German-Dutch border in the late 1990s to test the possibility of a cease-fire. The PKK’s man was Kobane. When Turkey’s latest stab at peace with the PKK in the early days of the Syrian conflict was still in play, Kobane was very much in the loop.

Either way, the fiction that the PKK and the YPG are not connected is becoming increasingly hard to maintain.

“The secrecy that was surrounding the presence of these [PKK] cadres is no longer viable. It’s not possible to keep this clandestine streak in Arab areas like Deir ez-Zor where the way they conduct themselves appears foreign to the area. Today, people know who they are and talk openly about it,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group who just returned from a field trip to Rojava where she interviewed Kobane. “To the autonomous administration’s credit, it’s something that’s being discussed more openly within the realm of the intra-Kurdish talks and the internal reform process that they’ve been undergoing, through town hall, meetings, general conferences,” Khalifa explained in an interview with Al-Monitor. “So, the way they are working on this now,” she continued, “is putting it within the framework of a Syrianization of institutions, reforming local governance based on domestic pressure.”

 Khalifa added, “So when [Kobane] said they’d already committed to phasing out the [PKK] cadres and that the process has already started, he put it within the framework of intra-Kurdish talks and of the local dialogues they have been having in the predominantly Arab areas [under Kurdish control].”

However, “Despite the significance of Kobane’s pledge to pull out non-Syrian [PKK] cadres from Syria, it remains unclear whether such a move would be sufficient to de-escalate tensions with Ankara since for Turkey the main issue is party affiliation (and operational ties to Qandil) rather than citizenship. Ankara is also skeptical whether Kobane is actually willing and capable of implementing such a move,” she said.

Zagros Hiwa, the PKK spokesman, declined to comment on US efforts to drive out the PKK from Syria. "The main source of the problems in north Syria, and Syria in general, is the Turkish state’s occupation of Syria, either directly or through radical jihadist groups. If the US really wants to solve the Syrian crisis, they will have to address this core issue," Hiwa said via Whatsapp.

Kurds across the ideological spectrum support Kobane and his efforts to secure Rojava’s future through a mix of pragmatism and diplomacy. His dream for the northeast to eventually become the template for a democratic and prosperous Syria that is anchored in the West and has cordial ties with all of its neighbors is catching on.

The Revolutionary Youth’s actions and Kobane’s apparent inability to rein them in, however, flies in the face of such efforts and provides Ankara with further ammunition.

KNC officials blame the group for vandalizing its offices in Qamishli in August. The SDF condemned the attack, saying the perpetrators would be held accountable. “Recently, every time the KNC-PYD negotiations have progressed, under American supervision and [with Kobane] present, this group’s activity has increased more and more,” said Ibrahim Birro, a senior KNC figure.

“It’s a clear sign from Qandil, from the PKK, that they don’t want these negotiations to succeed,” he told Al-Monitor in an interview. But is it?

The same night that the KNC affiliate’s office was targeted, Revolutionary Youth members returned to the scene and restored the awning along with a defaced Kurdistan flag.

Child recruitment is commonplace among Kurdish groups throughout the region. By resisting Kobane’s efforts to end the practice, the PKK is likely signaling displeasure that the unity talks appear to be coming at their expense.

US hypocrisy in this regard is “utterly disgusting,” said a Western civil society worker who has dealt with Kurdish factions for more than three decades. “All of those US generals who were planning the battles against the Islamic State, who were they planning it with, who was doing the heavy lifting on the ground? The PKK,” he said. “And now they are just supposed to disappear?”

“It’s thanks in large part to PKK cadres that the Islamic State was defeated,” concurred Aliza Marcus, the author of “Blood and Belief,” the most authoritative English-language history of the PKK. “The question is: What is the point of the demand?” she said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.  “Is this in hopes of satisfying Turkey or is there an actual deal underway? If it’s the former — in other words, a hope this will satisfy Ankara — then the US needs to recognize that removing Turkish cadres will not be sufficient, not least of all because there are Syrian Kurdish cadres active as well,” she observed.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s unremitting attacks against the group across Iraqi Kurdistan contradict its calls for PKK militants to leave Rojava. The weaker they grow in Iraq, the deeper they will likely dig into Syria.

Kobane, in his November interview with Al-Monitor, praised the PKK for its role in defeating IS. “It’s important to note that the PKK made big sacrifices in the war against terror in Rojava. Nobody can dispute this. The PKK will always defend the interests of the people of Rojava. It will not create problems for them. On the contrary, it will always look to ease their path. That is what we believe,” he said. What better proof than to return Rawan to her family.

This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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