Syria's War Against Children

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly targeting young boys and girls, often with torture

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Young girls take part in a demonstration in Amude, Syria, on September 30. Their face paint reads "freedom" and "peacefully." / Reuters

On Monday, August 15, a woman we'll call Shadia took her husband and three-year-old son for an evening walk in Bab al-Dreib, a residential neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs, where she lives. Some people from the area were gathering for a small demonstration and show of solidarity. Much of the crowd, gathered in a single street, was composed of local families. The military had launched a devastating siege on Homs a month earlier, but parts of the city had quieted, which may be why Shadia felt safe bringing her son to that night's protest.

Shortly after they arrived, Shadia watched two identical cars pull up to the crowd. She immediately recognized them as white Kia Ceratos, which are often used by the feared and despised Air Force intelligence. Men in the cars silently pointed automatic rifles at the crowd and opened fire. Shadia's husband leaned over their son to protect him but, because the gunmen had given no warning, he was unable to respond quickly enough, and a bullet entered the young boy's stomach.

When the shooting stopped, many of the protesters had scattered, but 20 or so were still on the ground, too badly injured to stand. People emerged from nearby houses to help; Shadia and her husband also remained with their son. As they moved away from the gunmen and the white cars, a large armored military vehicle -- Shadia called it a tank -- suddenly pulled up to the opposite end of the street, blocking their exit. The vehicle's turret opened fire, filling the street with "large bullets, the kind that can bring down walls," as Shadia later told a researcher with Human Right Watch.

A few hours later, more gunman and military vehicles arrived, firing at people and houses, apparently at random. Shadia's family escaped, and their son survived with medical care, but the people they watched die that night included a pregnant woman and a child that Shadia estimated to be 18 months old.

The violence in Syria has worsened dramatically and consistently since August. Shadia's story, typical of late summer and early fall violence there, was documented in a report by Human Rights Watch, one of several human rights reports that tell many such stories from the government's crackdown against civilians, often whether they are protesters or not. Children have increasingly come under fire in this violence. Though many of them are incidental victims like Shadia's son, the tactics that security forces employ throughout the country put children at incredible risk. At best, the regime may be indifferent to their young victims; at worst, they may be deliberately choosing an approach that increases the likelihood that its bullets find their way to young boys and girls. But, more and more, the stories from Syria describe security forces actively singling out children, often for torture or worse.

A United Nations report, released in late November, revealed that regime-allied forces are increasingly targeting children, often with sexual violence. The UN was able to confirm at least 256 children who had been killed by security forces. (Update, February 1: The UN has by now confirmed at least 384 child deaths, an average of more than two every day since the initial report.) In the Mediterranean city of Latakia, a popular tourist destination, a military officer shot a two-year-old girl, announcing he did not want her to grow into a demonstrator. Many civilians taken and later released by security forces -- the lucky ones -- described rape, and the threat of raping family members, as a frequent use of torture against adults as well as children.

One man broke down in an interview with UN researchers when he described being forced to watch three security officers rape an 11-year-old boy. "I have never been so afraid in my whole life. And then they turned to me and said; you are next," he said.

Another man, presumably an inmate at the infamous Air Force intelligence detention center in Damascus, recounted the treatment of a 14-year-old boy named Thamir al-Sharee. Thamir was taken to the Damascus facility by security forces in April; when his body was released weeks later, it showed signs of severe torture. His case is well-known in Syria, perhaps because it was among the first of what has since become a more regular occurrence. The man who saw Thamir at the facility recalled, "The boy was lying on the floor and was completely blue. He was bleeding profusely from his ear, eyes and nose. He was shouting and calling for his mother and father for help. He fainted after being hit with a rifle butt on the head." Since then, many schools have been converted into detention centers.

On Monday night, a South African woman named Navanethem "Navi" Pillay gave a closed-door briefing to the United Nations Security Council about the abuses in Syria. Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has access to the UN human rights body's ongoing investigations in Syria. She has also emerged as one of the most prominent activists for victims of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Her confidential briefing, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch, described more recent abuses, which she called "intolerable." In Homs, where Shadia and her family were attacked, the military has dug trenches around the city, presumably to prevent people from escaping. Snipers posted throughout the city seem to be shooting people on sight and at random. On Sunday, snipers killed at least two children, one five years old and one 18 months. Many residents are afraid to leave their homes, even for food or water. Security forces are believed to now target ambulances, doctors, and aid workers. Hospitals, like schools, have been converted into prisons and torture facilities. One UN diplomat told Lynch the report was "the most horrifying briefing that we've had in the Security Council over the last two years."

The abuses in Syria are so severe that it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of their scale. Pillay's briefing revealed that the death toll now probably exceeds 5,000, or an average of about 20 people per day since the uprising began in March. For comparison, roughly 4,400 Americans died in the Iraq war over eight years; 1,853 have died so far in Afghanistan. The bloodiest month of the Iraq war, November 2004, claimed 141 American lives, or just under five per day. As of this writing, 35 Syrians have already been reported killed today, just in four of the most affected towns.

"Urgent, effective measures in a collective and decisive manner must be taken to protect Syrians," Pillay said. But Russia, with support from China, has for months adamantly opposed -- and effectively blocked -- any UN action against Syria, which would have to be approved by the Security Council. Russia has long had a close relationship with the Syrian regime, and at times with that of neighboring Syrian ally Iran. An earlier resolution that would have merely condemned Syria but not taken any direct action could not even pass the council. Now that Russia is experiencing its own pro-democracy protests, although much smaller in scope, it is probably even less likely to allow international action against the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, more Syrians are starting to shoot back at the security forces that have long terrorized them. Armed groups are increasingly prevalent; some analysts believe that civil war is probably inevitable. Shadia's three-year-old son survived the attack by security forces this August. But with dozens killed daily, children increasingly targeted, the odds of all-out war increasing, and world leaders unable or unwilling to act, how much longer will he have?