Tiger Forces, Part 2: The Recruitment of Child Soldiers

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Since the Syrian government captured Aleppo in December 2016 it has continued to shorten its front lines, seemingly freeing thousands of troops for new offensives against both ISIS and the Syrian rebels. At the forefront of many of these offensives were the Tiger Forces and their Russian partners. Yet despite the increased manpower and reported elite nature of the Tiger Forces, evidence for the use of child soldiers has only grown since 2016. Below are pictures of 30 Tiger Force fighters who are either confirmed or heavily implied to be under the age of 18. Nineteen of these children were pictured in 2018, mostly fighting in East Ghouta, Damascus and in Dara’a. The use of these children in militias is a war crime.

On October 17, 2003, the Syrian Arab Republic ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), passed by the United Nations on May 25, 2000. In its ratification statement, the Syrian government declared:

that the statutes in force and the legislation applicable to the Ministry of Defence of the Syrian Arab Republic do not permit any person under 18 years of age to join the active armed forces or the reserve bodies or formations and do not permit the enlistment of any person under that age.1.UN Treaty documentation

Furthermore, by ratifying OPAC, Syria agreed with the new international law prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 to either be conscripted or voluntarily recruited into a non-State armed group.2.Child Soldiers International OPAC does allow states to recruit children beginning at age 16, although they are prohibited from being used in combat until the age of 18. The use of children under the age of 15 in any role, including in support roles, is also a war crime under Article 8.2.b.xxvi of the Rome Statute, of which Syria is a signatory.3.“Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria” : Human Rights Watch4.Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

The use of child soldiers by all sides in the Syrian Civil War has been well documented.5.“Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria” : Human Rights Watch6.“Kids on the Front Lines” : US News By the end of 2014, as many as 200 child soldier deaths had been verified.7.“Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria” : Human Rights Watch In 2015, more than half of the child soldiers verified by UNICEF that year were under the age of 15 and had been recruited “by all sides in the conflict”, while human rights organisations verified the recruitment of 850 child soldiers in 2016 alone. In November 2017, Human Rights Watch further reported on 13 and 15 year old Iranian and Afghan child soldiers fighting on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Syrian government.8.“2016 Was ‘Worst Year’ For Syrian Children: UNICEF” : Newsweek9.“Iran’s Child Soldiers in Syria” : Human Rights Watch

This second installment of the Tiger Forces series documents the blatant and widespread use of child soldiers within the infamous Air Intelligence-run militia. Part 1 of the series can be found here.

Verified Child Soldier Deaths

At least three verifiable child soldier deaths were reported by groups within the Tiger Forces between December 2017 and March 2018. Three additional deaths do not have ages but appear to be of individuals under 18 years old. In that time, the author personally documented another two dozen verified child soldiers, all of which were reported killed while fighting for various pro-government Syrian militias, and all between the ages of 15 and 17.

On December 9, 2017, 17-year old Nasser Suweidan died while fighting ISIS in the city of Deir Ez Zor. Nasser was a member of the Homs-based Cheetah’s Groups and was born in the Alawite neighborhood of Zahra, Homs.

17 year old Nasser Suweidan, killed while fighting with the Cheetahs Groups.
17 year old Nasser Suweidan, killed while fighting with the Cheetahs Groups.

On March 7, 2018, 15-year old ‘Ala Yasser Saqr died fighting opposition forces in East Ghouta, Damascus. ‘Ala was a member of the Tartous and Latakia based al-Loyuth Groups and was born in the Alawite city of Jableh, Latakia.

15 year old Ala Saqr, killed while fighting with the al-Loyuth Groups.
15 year old Ala Saqr, killed while fighting with the al-Loyuth Groups.

On March 31, 2018, Amran Mohammed Mahmoud was reported killed fighting opposition forces in Jisreen, East Ghouta, Damascus. Amran was born in 2002 and was likely still 15 years old when he died. Amran fought with the Ali Sheli Hawks Group.

15 year old Amran Mahmoud, killed while fighting with the Ali Sheli Hawks.
15 year old Amran Mahmoud, killed while fighting with the Ali Sheli Hawks.

On July 12, 2017, Faraj al-Dhahir, the commander of the Cheetah Group 8, posted this picture of a killed child fighter to his personal Facebook page. Although his name is obscured, it is clear the boy is under the age of 18 and most likely had some connection to Faraj.

Unknown child soldier, killed while fighting with the Cheetahs Groups.
Unknown child soldier, killed while fighting with the Cheetahs Groups.

On January 6, 2018, Nour al-Deen Khasara died near Abu Duhur airbase, Idlib. While the author was unable to determine Nour’s exact age, he does appear to possibly be under 18 at the time of his death. Nour fought with the Salamiyah, Hama based Zarif Regiment and claims to have lived in Beirut, Lebanon.

Nour al-Deen Khasara, an apparent child soldier in the Zarif Regiment, killed on January 6, 2018.
Nour al-Deen Khasara, an apparent child soldier in the Zarif Regiment, killed on January 6, 2018.

On March 14, 2018, Mohammad Nahlawy died fighting with the Zarif Regiment’s Group 4 in Hammouriyah, East Ghouta. As with Nour, Mohammad’s age is unknown, however in the picture on the right he is holding a gun that is just under four feet long, indicating that he is only around five feet tall.

Mohammad Nahlawy, an apparent child fighter in the Zarif Group 4, killed on March 13, 2018.
Mohammad Nahlawy, an apparent child fighter in the Zarif Group 4, killed on March 13, 2018.

Three other Tiger Forces deaths reported during this period may have also been child soldiers. However, the boys looked old enough that without a reported age it is possible that they were 18 or 19 and have thus not been included in this article.

Child Soldiers on Deployment

While there are relatively few verifiable child soldier deaths reported from the ranks of the Tiger Forces over the past year, pictures posted on personal and semi-official media pages from Tiger Forces deployments reveal that the use of child soldiers is widespread throughout this purportedly elite Syrian militia. Since these pictures were from Tiger Forces fan pages and commanders’ personal Facebook profiles, there is no data on these boys’ names, age, or origin. In just a few weeks this author found dozens of pictures showing child soldiers that appeared to be under the age of 18, however only the most egregious examples have been included below.

In late February and early March, a Homs community Facebook page shared three pictures of child soldiers in the Tiger Forces fighting in East Ghouta, Damascus. The first picture was widely circulated both on Facebook and Twitter. Its caption describes “the youngest fighter in the Tiger Campaign, Ali Mohamed Hammam…not the biggest and the strongest but you are the most manly and courageous.” Ali Hamam is in his early teens at best.

Ali Mohammed Hamam the "youngest fighter in the Tiger Forces."
Ali Mohammed Hamam the “youngest fighter in the Tiger Forces.”

On March 3, 2018, the page posted two pictures of a group of Tiger Forces fighters, likely from the Cheetah Groups, made up almost entirely of children. Ali Hamam is visible in the green shirt in the first picture, his diminutive stature is clear even beside other children.

A group of Tiger Forces fighters made almost entirely of children pose in East Ghouta, Damascus.
A group of Tiger Forces fighters made almost entirely of youth pose in East Ghouta, Damascus.
A group of Tiger Forces fighters made almost entirely of children pose in East Ghouta, Damascus.
A group of Tiger Forces fighters with at least one child soldier pose in East Ghouta, Damascus.

Ali Sheli Hawks

A young boy appears in a May 21, 2018 video posted on an Ali Sheli Hawks fan page. Barely visible in the background just to the right of the boy’s head stands Ali Sheli, the group’s notorious commander from Talkalakh, Homs. Interestingly, the caption on this video implies that the Ali Sheli Hawks are actually members of the 4th Division, the Syrian Arab Army unit run by Bashar al-Assad’s brutal brother, Maher, which was responsible for much of the violence against protesters in 2011 and 2012.

A young man likely under the age of 18, foreground, in an Ali Sheli Hawks video.
A young man likely under the age of 18, foreground, in an Ali Sheli Hawks video.

Hayder Regiment

On December 27, 2016 a Hayder Regiment page posted a picture of its fighters in Palmyra, Homs that appears to show at least five child soldiers in a group of only 15 fighters.

At least five apparent child soldiers in the Hayder Regiment in Palmyra, Homs.
At least five apparent child soldiers in the Hayder Regiment in Palmyra, Homs.

Between June 24 and June 29, 2018, a Hayder Regiment page published three pictures of its fighters in Dara’a depicting at least four apparent child soldiers. The words “Tiger Forces” are clearly visible painted on the side of the armored vehicle in the first picture.

Two apparent child soldiers in the Hayder Regiment in Dara'a. The word "Tiger Forces" are clearly visible on the side of the armored vehicle.
Two apparent child soldiers in the Hayder Regiment in Dara’a. 
At least one apparent child soldier with the Hayder Regiment in an unknown location.
At least one apparent child soldier with the Hayder Regiment in an unknown location.
At least one apparent child soldier in the Hayder Regiment in Dara'a.
At least one apparent child soldier in the Hayder Regiment in Dara’a.

al-Loyuth Groups

On June 20, 2018, the Latakia and Tartous based al-Loyuth Group published pictures of its fighters in Dara’a depicting at least two child soldiers. The text over the picture states: “Men of al-Assad, The Tiger Forces, al-Loyuth Groups (Shadi Ismail).”

Two apparent child soldiers with the al-Loyuth Groups in Dara'a.
Two apparent child soldiers with the al-Loyuth Groups in Dara’a.

Sahab Regiment

Hassoun Abu Yamin, seen below, has been fighting with the Kawkab, Hama-based Sahab Regiment since 2016. Abu Yamin currently fights in the Sahab Regiment’s Firas al-Adba Group and hails from Tartous, as does much of the Sahab Regiment leadership.

An apparent child fighter in the Sahab Regiment.
An apparent child fighter in the Sahab Regiment.

On September 2, 2016, the Sahab Regiment’s Firas al-Adba Group published a series of pictures of its fighters in Souran, North Hama, which appeared to show at least one child soldier. Firas al-Adba, the commander of the small unit, was pictured alongside these fighters in other pictures in the set.

At least one apparent child fighter in the Sahab Regiment.
At least one apparent child fighter in the Sahab Regiment.

Taha Regiment

On July 7, 2018, a Taha Regiment-affiliated Facebook page posted the following picture of two Taha field commanders, Abu Ali al-Shahir (second from right) and Assad Taha (second from left) alongside an apparent child soldier. While the boy is not dressed in fatigues or carrying a weapon, his presence along the Dara’a front lines – where both of the field commanders were deployed – implies that he is at least serving in a support role.  

An apparent child soldier alongside two Taha Regiment Field Commanders.
An apparent child soldier alongside two Taha Regiment field commanders.

Zarif Regiment

On February 20, 2018, a Zarif Regiment page posted the following picture showing a large portion of its fighters in East Ghouta, Damascus, participating in the newly launched government offensive. The picture shows a clear child soldier on the far right (red box) and Abu Ali Samir Zarif, the founder and commander of the Zarif Regiment, just a few feet to his left (black box). Note the Zarif Regiment emblem in the upper left corner of the picture.

An apparent child soldier in the Zarif Regiment alongside the Regiment's founder and commander.
An apparent child soldier in the Zarif Regiment alongside the Regiment’s founder and commander.

On April 29, 2018, Abo Maril Ali Alaiiar posted the following picture to his personal Facebook page. Abo Maril (black box) is the commander of the Zarif Regiment’s Group 4. The picture shows an apparent child soldier fighting within his unit. On July 14, 2017 Abo Maril posted a picture from somewhere around Palmyra, Homs, of himself holding a decapitated head.

An apparent child soldier in the Zarif Group 4 alongside the the group's commander.
An apparent child soldier in the Zarif Group 4 alongside the the group’s commander.

The use of child soldiers by the Tiger Forces has been proven to be a widespread and endemic issue. Listed above are seven of the 14 major groups that make up the Tiger Forces, with pictures of child soldiers from 2016 through July 2018. Additional pictures showing boys who appeared close to the age of 18 were omitted from this article. The deaths of 15 and 17-year-old children in the group proves that these boys are regularly deployed to front lines to fight. However, even if they were retained simply for support roles, their recruitment to a non-state armed group is still a war crime according to the Syrian ratified OPAC. Furthermore, the pervasive presence of children within a militia consistently referenced in the media as Syria’s ‘elite’ offensive unit at a time when the Syria government should have a surplus of troops should shed some light onto the issue of manpower shortages and the true structure and capabilities of the Tiger Forces. These issues will be explored in more depth in the following articles. 

Gregory Waters
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Gregory Waters is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and a fellow at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on mapping Syrian militia unit structures. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

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