This month marks a decade of conflict and destruction in Syria. Innumerable lives have been lost to the war, millions displaced, including 2.5 million children, and entire generations impacted, turning the conflict into one of the most devastating humanitarian crises of the past decades.
Since 2012, Geneva Call has worked tirelessly and spared no effort in promoting International Humanitarian Law (IHL) among fighting parties and reminding them of their obligation to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict in Syria. While IHL establishes a comprehensive legal framework, violations are widespread in the conflict. These violations include attacks on civilians and/or civilian facilities, sexual violence, the unlawful recruitment and use of children in hostilities, displacement of civilians, looting, obstruction or diversion of humanitarian assistance, and attacks on humanitarian workers. Thus, civilians are the primary victims of the conflict and other acts of violence.
Over the past seven years, Geneva Call has actively engaged with armed non-State actors (ANSAs) and de-facto authorities in North Syria to promote international humanitarian norms. Between 2014 and 2020, Geneva Call achieved tangible success in raising the age of recruitment to 18 in North East Syria; in 2014, the People’s Protection Units/Women’s Protection Units (YPG-YPJ) and the Autonomous self-Administration signed Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment protecting children in armed conflict and immediately demobilized 149 children from their ranks. In 2015, the group introduced a new decree prohibiting all fighters under the age of 18 to participate in military operations. Then, in 2016, the General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prohibited recruitment of children, while the YPG/YPJ’s monitoring mechanism continued to investigate cases of alleged child recruitment. In 2018, the SDF and the YPG-YPJ adopted 18 as their new minimum recruitment age (up from 17). Geneva Call’s engagement with the SDF paved the way for signing an Action Plan with the United Nations to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18. In 2019, the SDF released 30 children from their ranks.
In parallel, Geneva Call actively engaged with different ANSAs in North West Syria, a dozen of which signed different Deeds of Commitment. In 2020-2021, Geneva Call reached out to Syrian National Army (SNA) ranks and organized trainings and awareness rising sessions on international humanitarian norms. At the end of 2020, the SNA formed a “Grievance Redress Committee” in Afrin and worked to give back rights and property to their owners, including money taken by force by some factions as royalties. As a result of Geneva Call’s work in North West Syria, several groups took concrete steps to change their internal policies: among them, the “Moral Guidance Directorate” of the SNA revised its Code of Conduct with the support of our team in the region.
Today, the conflict landscape of Syria continues to harden and the context is extremely volatile. Geneva Call’s philosophy of local ownership and working closely from within the target civilian communities makes any enduring engagement a challenging endeavour, but a necessary one. Geneva Call joins the humanitarian community in calling all parties to the conflict to respect their obligations and to protect civilians. Respect and adherence to IHL can allow and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, spare lives and prevent the collapse of entire communities and civilian infrastructure (hospitals, schools and cultural and historical patrimonies), which are needed more than ever in the Syrian crisis.
Action is urgently needed. But despite everything, young Syrians are still hopeful. Most of them have faith in a brighter future and as the conflict is diving into its second decade, let us not only look back but act to make such a future possible.