While Europeans worry about those who have gone to Syria to train with ISIS, millions of Syrian children are at risk of becoming terrorist recruits.
According to a 2014 report by UNICEF (the United Nations agency for children), at least 3 million children are displaced in Syria, and more than 1.2 million have fled to neighboring countries. They have been bombed and shelled, seen family members slaughtered, and are forced to live in camps or abandoned buildings. Half of them no longer have any schooling.
Their numbers keep rising, with no end in sight.
“Syria is the greatest refugee crisis of our times, and children are the most visible victims,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a former U.S. Defense Department analyst. “ISIS is absolutely trying to take advantage of the situation,” he added. “It sees the children as potential recruits.”
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Yet there has been far too little attention paid by Western governments to this lost generation of Syrian children. This neglect has moral – and strategic – implications. Unless something is done to help them, these children will supply the next generation of jihadis that threatens the Arab world and beyond.
Syria once had a good education system, but a fifth of its schools have been destroyed, damaged, turned into shelters or seized by armed militias.
Drowning in Syrian refugees, the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan can educate only a fraction of the Syrian newcomers. So these children are growing up with no schooling and no prospects.
“In the camps, they are poor, cold, uneducated, without work, without hope,” said Farah Atassi of the National Syrian Women’s Association. “What do you expect? This is a breeding ground for terror.”
Indeed, ISIS is already sending many young boys to terrorist training camps in areas of Syria it controls. And schools in those regions now inculcate radical Islam.
In other parts of Syria, UNICEF reports, at least a million children live in areas under siege (mostly by regime forces) or in areas of intense fighting. Boys as young as 12 have been recruited, or forced to support the combatants, while many have been arrested and tortured by the Assad government. As these youths mature, they will know little but how to fight.
Moreover, the Assad regime continues to create more refugees by dropping barrel bombs on populated areas, deliberately targeting clinics, bakeries and any remaining schools. International aid groups can’t keep up.
The jihadi groups offer desperate, besieged or displaced Syrians the services the regime has destroyed.
If there were some prospect of ending this terrible war, the lost generation of Syrian children might still have a future. But the Obama administration is basing its Syria policy on the hope that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers will godfather viable Syrian peace talks. However, Moscow and Tehran think Assad is winning and show no interest in a compromise solution.
In reality, the war is stalemated. Until the balance tips against him, Assad will drop more barrel bombs, and more Syrians will be forced to flee.
The international failure to end the Syrian war – or prevent Assad from creating more refugees – guarantees a huge source of recruitment for tomorrow’s jihadi movements: a lost generation of children who blame the West for their suffering.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.