ALEPPO, Syria — Mohammed Afar is 11 years old. The modified AK-47 assault rifle he carries stretches to nearly two-thirds his height.
Over the top of his faded yellow jacket a Free Syrian Army vest holds three extra clips, each full with live ammunition, and a walkie-talkie. An FSA badge sits on one side and a rendering of the Islamic Shahada, in Arabic calligraphy, on the other.
He says he does not miss school or want to stay at home with his mother and two sisters.
“I want to stay as a fighter until Bashar is killed,” he says, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The fighters surrounding him, all claiming to be from Liwa al-Tawhid, pass him a sniper rifle and offer to take him to a frontline, so he can demonstrate his shooting.
“He is a great shot,” says his father, Mohammed Saleh Afar. “He is my little lion.”
Over the course of its grinding 21-month insurgency, Syria’s children have endured numerous abuses.
Caught-up in shelling, airstrikes, and sniping, they have additionally been subject to arbitrary arrest, torture and rape, as reported by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria in August; which, additionally, noted “with concern reports that children under 18 are fighting and performing auxiliary roles for anti-Government armed groups.”
Both the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children carry provisions that call for not using combatants under the age of 15, while the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute makes it a war crime.
Mohammed quickly disengages his magazine and presents it, before skillfully reinserting it, but not chambering a round. The older fighters surrounding him— some of whom are little more than boys themselves —praise his speed and mirror his father’s earlier statements, calling him a “good shot.”
He says he admires the fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra—composed of hardline Islamists subscribing to Takfiri ideology—and recently designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Al-Nusra have proven effective in battle, winning itself scores of supporters.
Many of its fighters previously cut their teeth on other frontlines of the global jihad —notably Iraq and Afghanistan, but also throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.
The group’s rise has imbued the opposition with an unmistakable Islamicist hue while raising fears of a sectarian bloodbath in the event that Assad falls: Syria is home to Sunni, Alawite, Druze, Christians and Yazidi.
“They [Jabhat al-Nusra] know Islam and Sharia. They know what it means to be a Muslim,” Mohammed says.
Mohammed stands in Aleppo’s Old City, down a winding maze of back-alleys. The crack of sniper rifles ring out intermittently while the ghostly howl of Assad’s warplanes can be heard high above.
The destruction wrought on the area is massive. Assad opted for a scorched earth strategy after the rebels swept into Aleppo in July, becoming increasingly reliant on warplanes and attack helicopters, waging, often indiscriminately, a war from the skies.
Little moves but save a few stray cats picking through the mounds of rank garbage that clogs the streets.
Buildings’ faces have been shorn off. Bombed-out school buses block streets, providing cover from snipers. Heavy fighting is taking place, far away from where Mohammed stands, in the mixed Kurdish-Arab neighborhood of Bustan Basha.
“When my father goes to the frontline, he takes me with him,” says Mohammed. “He says to be careful and we find a safe place to shoot from.”
According to a November Human Rights Watch report, some opposition groups fighting in Syria “are using children for combat and other military purposes.”
“Even when children volunteer to fight, commanders have a responsibility to protect them by turning them away,” said its children’s researcher, Priyanka Motaparthy, in the report.
“Children are easily influenced by older relatives and friends, but their participation in armed hostilities places them in grave danger of being killed, permanently disabled, or severely traumatized.”
Yet Mohammed’s father—his long and graying beard styled in the fashion favored by religiously conservative Salafists—sees little wrong with his son’s participation.
“I put my trust in God,” he says.
The other members of the unit agree. The 11-year-old is kept safe, they claim, and never taken to frontlines that are too dangerous.
“There are other boys fighting too,” Mohammed says. “Some, but not much.”
He presents his gun—gifted to him by his father—awkwardly. Then he adopts a more striking pose, as the battalion members encourage him to take the sniper rifle.
A few seconds later, he’s holding his weapon by his waist, pretending to fire from the hip.