The Children of Syria: A War and Image Industry / by Asaad Al-Saleh

When writing my new book, Voices of the Arab Spring, I did not feature the testimonials of children. Though the book surveys participants from various backgrounds, differing in age, politics, and education, it doesn’t address the Arab Spring from the perspective of children, even though they are also actors in it. I chose not to cover their stories because they are being used and abused to promote propaganda in Syria. The immoral exposure of children to the war is heightened by the disturbing fact that they have been used repeatedly throughout the conflict to endorse various political positions.

During the bloodiest confrontations of the Arab Spring, those between the Syrian regime and the hundreds of factions fighting it, children have become victims of the violence resulting from both the uprising and the subsequent civil war. Despite this tragedy, children are still used in the rhetoric of revolt, war, and jihad.

Reports and studies marking the fourth anniversary of the uprising and civil war in Syria show that more than 4 million people are refugees outside the country and 7.6 million are internally displaced. Almost half of these are children whose need for assistance (such as shelter and education) is only partially being met. Of the 200,000 killed in the 4-year span of the conflict, over 10,000 were children, some of whom died as a result of torture. Citing the international standard that the percentage of civilians targeted in war should not exceed 2%, reports on Syria point out that the percentage of targeted children and women reached 4.5%. On the same occasion, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised awareness about the emotional trauma affecting Syrian children, some of whom are suffering the effects of rape and the loss of parents. Labeling them the “lost generation,” UNICEF also reported that more than 20% of Syrian schools have been either destroyed or rendered effectively unusable because they are currently used for shelter by displaced families.

As if this tragic plight were not enough, images of children are used in Syria as a propaganda tool by many sides. For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a rhetoric of defending children has been employed to portray its enemies as abusers of children and the regime as their protector. In September 2013, the regime aired on television the testimony of a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Qadah, who gave details about the alleged “jihad sex” she was asked to perform at the request of her father. The opposition immediately responded by stating that Rawan had been kidnapped, forced to tell the same lies the regime was spreading about its opponents, and appeared too young to be a reliable witness in regards to verifying the regime’s claims. Rawan’s story demonstrates how children can be easily used for political agendas in the context of war. For some revolutionaries, or those who revolted peacefully in Syria four years ago, it was likewise customary to use children while calling for regime change and to attract the world’s attention to al-Assad’s crimes. This position comes from the assumption that children are “part of the revolution” and that their role must therefore be presented. The world cares about children, and the situation in Syria has been exceedingly desperate. Thus, children are used to provoke emotions and elicit more attention, political pressure, and eventually humanitarian or military intervention to “help” or “save” the children. The regime’s behavior is highly unethical concerning Syrian children considering the widespread displacement and death that occurs for the sake of al-Assad’s staying in power.

As for rebel groups that use terrorism in Syria, children are considered the future of Islam—as it is envisioned by al-Qaeda or ISIS. Their participation in the terrorists’ programs, most of which are symbolic but are sometimes extremely graphic, is done without the least attention to legal, moral, or psychological considerations. One of the early instances of the use of children’s images was performed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. In June 2013, a video of a child about 5-years-old was circulated by al-Nusra to promote their dogma. The child, who was carried on a man’s shoulder, was chanting a song full of bigotry and terrorist rhetoric:

Our leader is Bin Laden … O you who terrorized America

We destroyed America … With a civilian airplane

The [World] Trade Center became a heap of sand

O you Nusayri Police … Wait for us O Alawites

We are coming to slaughter you … Unheeding any Convention

[The child is then handed a knife to pretend that he is killing someone, before continuing:]

They say I am a terrorist … “It is my honor,” I replied

Our terrorism is highly praised … It is a divine call.

Children often play games imagining themselves as heroes with guns to fight the bad guys. But in Syria they are being dragged into a real war zone, even as instigators. The image industry in Syria uses journalistic and political outlets to make children represent a cause that is not theirs. It circulates hundreds of images of children carrying conventional weapons or dressed in military costumes, and more recently playing with slaughtered heads as part of ISIS propaganda. Such visibility is hardly the outcome of genuine consent of the child since he or she is not cognizant of the meaning or the consequences of participating in such functions. These children are growing up in one of the ugliest war zones in the world. One day, they will tell stories full of bad guys, including those who let this war drag on and on.Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions.

The regime, the opposition, and the jihadis in Syria are all responsible for such unethical manipulation of children and their images. These players need to grow up and leave children alone.

Asaad Al-Saleh is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah and author of the new book Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions.