America, Syria and the State of Child Soldiering 2012

The photographs of Syrian teenagers holding Kalashnikovs with cigarettes in their mouths may at first look like a romantic depiction of young rebels, but they are evidence of a tragic violation of international law and a moral failure for the Free Syrian Army. Syria’s civil war is averaging about 4,000 dead a month over its 20-month duration. That number in a country of 25 million mirrors the heights of the Iraq civil war. This would be the equivalent of roughly 50,000 killed monthly were Syria the size of America.

Yes, it’s a very, very violent war. But of all the human rights being violated in Syria, one has been overlooked: the use of child soldiers by the Syrian rebels.

A report issued this week by Human Rights Watch is a reminder that the Free Syrian Army is losing its moral high ground.

MORE: Obama Gives a Pass to Nations Using Child Soldiers

“All eyes are on the Syrian opposition to prove they’re trying to protect children from bullets and bombs, rather than placing them in danger,” said Human Rights Watch’s Priyanka Motaparthy in a press release accompanying report. “One of the best ways opposition military commanders can protect children is to make a strong, public commitment against use of children in their forces, and to verify boys’ ages before allowing them to enlist.”

Post-election, the United States is now looking at what expanded role it will play in Syria. No matter who won in November, it was a given that the U.S. would take a more activist role in Syria’s civil war. The stakes are too high not to, with American allies on all sides and our nemesis Iran backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s brutal siege.

If America is to claim a moral high ground as a global leader, it must adhere to its own laws and stop supplying money to states that use children in warfare. That includes taking a harder line with the Free Syrian Army.

At a minimum, it looks like NATO will approve Patriot Missiles for Turkey and a more cohesive attempt to arm and legitimize the Syrian opposition. A no-fly zone is also being discussed. That would likely lead to an air war, given Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses.

One role the U.S. will likely not play in Syria is enforcer of child soldering international law. The U.S. counts six of the seven states that use child soldiers as allies: South Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Yemen, Libya and Congo. (America does not support Sudan, the other state named.) In the cases of Congo, South Sudan, Yemen and Libya, this represents a violation of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act passed by Congress in 2008, which bans military aid to states using children to fight wars.

By that standard, the Obama administration is complicitly committing war crimes.

The problem isn’t just with states whose armies we support. It’s with new allies too. President Obama visited Burma this month in the first-ever trip by a U.S. head of state. Burma has “the largest number of child soldiers in the world. Thousands of children serve in Burma’s national army,” according to the International Herald Tribune. But while in Burma neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought up the issue publicly, though behind closed doors they did press for further military “reforms.”

Of course, sending boys to war is not just an American issue. There are 300,000 child soldiers in the world, which would be tied with Thailand as the 15th largest standing army in the world.

But if America is to claim a moral high ground as a global leader, it must adhere to its own laws and stop supplying money to states that use children in warfare. That includes taking a harder line in Syria with the FSA.

What would you set as the minimum age for combat soldiers? Leave the number and the why of it in COMMENTS.

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Ray LeMoine is co-author of Babylon By Bus (Penguin Press 2006), a firsthand account of life in Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has contributed to New York magazine, The New York Times, Gawker, The Awl, Los Angeles Times, GQ, The Guardian, and others, and has served as producer for European features at Channel 4/ITN News, ARTE and Canal+. He lives in New York City.