A few months ago, Ahmed was an ordinary schoolchild in the Syrian city of Latakia. But when the baby-faced youngster was caught writing the words "freedom for Syria" on the classroom chalkboard, his teachers told him to leave and never come back. Now Ahmed, who says he is 13, has switched to learning how to use a Kalashnikov. He is the latest recruit in a brigade of fighters who slip back and forth across the northern Syrian border from Turkish villages like this one and make up the Free Syrian Army.
The ranks of the Syrian rebels, a still disorganized force that has been promised non-military aid by Washington, are filled almost entirely by young Sunni Muslim men. Many have no formal military training. And some of them appear to be no more than children..
Their presence is a disturbing side of the 13-month-old uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops continue to fire on neighbourhoods in Syria's main cities despite the presence of a United Nations team monitoring the ceasefire that went into effect 11 days ago. Frustrated with the continuing violence but unwilling to intervene directly, the U.S. and European Union Monday expanded sanctions on Syria and its ally Iran.
U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order to sanction what the administration called "digital guns-for-hire," or entities that provide tools like surveillance software that repressive regimes use to block or monitor social networking sites. At the same time, the EU issued its 14th set of sanctions, this time banning the export of luxury goods to Syria to penalize the al-Assad family and its business elite for their high-end lifestyles.
If the Free Syrian Army is arming and using underage boys in its fight against the forces of President al-Assad, it would be a violation of international conventions on soldiers. International criminal law says no child under the age of 15 can be used as a soldier and other international conventions consider those under the age of 18 as child soldiers.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said last month she could not confirm reports of children in the rebel army. But at one safe house used by FSA rebels in a small town a few metres from the Syrian border, it was not difficult to find Ahmed and Hatim, who said he is 16, resting with a half-dozen older fighters. Another conspicuously young-looking soldier did not offer his name or age, though his commander referred to him as "one of the teenagers."
Like most of the rebel soldiers interviewed, Ahmed and Hatim gave only first names to protect their families living in Syria.
The boys appeared to have been accepted in the rough camaraderie of the camp. When older fighters saw the way Ahmed ran around – full of energy and with the awkwardness of a child who has yet to grow into his body – they thought he looked like the chickens living outside the house. So now, everyone just calls him " dajaaj," Arabic for "chicken."
"I am not happy that I have a gun," said Ahmed, holding a cigarette and looking sleepy after an overnight patrol in Syria. "But I am happy that I am fighting with my friends and fighting for the Syrian people."
The rebels said that one of their men was shot in the shoulder during the night mission. The commander of the brigade, who identified himself as Abu Staif, said he has so far lost three men in direct combat.
"Yes, there are young guys joining the Free Syrian Army, and not just for me," said Abu Staif, who leads a 30-man brigade called Katibat Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, which mainly smuggles refugees through Syrian minefields to safety in Turkey.
Teenagers, he added, have been the victims of violent crackdowns by Syrian troops. "They prefer to fight the regime than wait around to be killed," he said.
The Syrian regime didn't make distinctions between men and children when it started killing people, he said, referring to the case of a 13-year-old boy who died last year after apparently being tortured and who has become a symbol of regime brutality for the uprising.
"I don't like these things, and I didn't hope for it. But there is no choice," Abu Staif said. "Anyway, the teenagers are very brave and they can fight."
Both the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition have struggled in recent months to project a well-organized veneer in hopes of attracting U.S. and other international backing. The Free Syrian Army, for its part, has portrayed itself as an army of well-trained military defectors.
But of the more than 20 rebel fighters interviewed, all of whom called themselves part of the FSA, only one said he had defected from the Syrian national army. The rest were young men, in some cases young boys who used Kalashnikovs bought from smugglers for around $1,500 a piece.
An older-looking fighter named Muhammad, who was squatting on a mattress in the tiny smoke-filled safe house, said Col. al-Assad is not doing anything for his brigade. "Nobody else is in charge of us," he said. "We don't need orders to fight for our freedom."
The brigade might be an ominous window onto the future of an increasingly chaotic-looking uprising in Syria. What began just over a year ago as an overwhelmingly peaceful movement is now filled with young Sunni men who, after months of brutal government repression, now want nothing more than to take up arms. Most will call themselves part of the Free Syrian Army, but the brigades are sometimes closer to self-fashioned local militias with no certain chain of command.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch documented numerous reports of kidnappings and torture by armed opposition groups, in some cases fuelled by sentiments against Alawites, the religious sect to which President al-Assad belongs.
There is no indication that the brigade led by Abu Staif has been involved in sectarian attacks or other abuses noted in the report, but the presence of multiple armed groups in Syria has contributed to a sense of fear among some parts of the population.
"Now if somebody drives from Latakia to Idlib, men with guns stop the car and steal everything in it," said one Syrian man, who spoke briefly at a border-crossing through the window of his car. "This is not freedom," he said, before driving into Syria with his family.
Special to The Globe and Mail with a report from Associated Press