Kurds flag SDF
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed coalition of mostly Kurdish militia units operating in northeastern Syria, has maintained de-facto control over much of the oil-rich eastern area of that Middle Eastern nation since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early 2010s.

A new report to Congress by the Office of the Inspector General at the US Department of Defence has criticised the SDF militias' ongoing practice of recruiting child soldiers, with the militia forces reportedly promising to stop doing so since at least 2014.

"Considerable additional detail on the SDF's actions to end the use of child soldiers subject was provided in the [Department of State] Country Report on Human Rights Conditions section for Syria for 2019, issued in March 2020, but the report also notes allegations that children were still being forcibly conscripted and that at least one 14-year-old boy was killed in fighting in Baghouz in early 2019," the report indicates.

"Each year's edition of the DoS Country Reports...since 2014 have contained similar promises by Kurdish entities partnered with the United States to end the use of child soldiers, and each report notes that their use apparently continued," the document notes.

Commenting on this state of affairs for the report, the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs said that this was an issue "limited more to the YPG [Kurdish People's Protection Unit militias] rather than the SDF or internal security forces as a whole."

Turkish Abuses

The Pentagon's quarterly report, compiled for the period running April 1-June 30, 2020, also criticises the US's NATO ally Turkey, citing a US European Command assessment calling Turkey a "major facilitation hub" for ISIS (Daesh) militants even as the country simultaneously engages in "counter-ISIS activities."

"USEUCOM said that the Turkish action 'impacted ISIS's ability to smuggle fighters, funds and supplies', but it noted that the difficulty of securing Turkey's border with Syria and Iraq 'likely ensures' that ISIS will continue to move supporters and family members across the borders," the report suggests.

The report also points to allegations of human rights abuses by Turkish-backed "hardline Islamist militias" in northern Syria, including "arbitrary detentions, extra-judicial killings, seizure of and resettlement of new populations in private properties, the repeated and deliberate shutting off of water access to half a million civilians, and transfer of arbitrarily-detained Syrians across and international border into Turkey."

The document highlights the difficulty of the US diplomatic position in the region amid clashes between the YPG and Turkish forces, citing a Defense Intelligence Agency analysis of Turkey's position that the YPG, SDF and PKK (i.e. Turkish Kurdish militias) are all "terrorist organisations that present an existential threat" to Ankara.

Turkish authorities have denied all allegations of mistreatment of civilians by forces it supports in the region, and maintain that Ankara's military operations in northern Syria, as well as support for the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Turkmen Brigades militias, are aimed at preventing the destabilisation of its southern borders. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek formally retracted Turkey's former stated aim to topple the Assad government in 2017.

Keeping the Oil

The report also mentions efforts by the US military to train the SDF to secure "critical petroleum infrastructure", with 50-60 percent of the required force said to have been trained as of mid-2020.

"The oilfield guard force is made up of site security guards and mobile perimeter security elements, who are trained to conduct perimeter security...and to employ technical security like surveillance cameras. In addition, [Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve] said the forces can serve as localised quick reaction forces to respond to attempts at sabotage," the document notes.

President Trump announced the redeployment of US forces to "secure" oil-rich areas of eastern Syria in October 2019, despite concerns from the international community that US actions constituted a violation of international laws against pillaging. The Russian military released a detailed intelligence report on US oil-smuggling operations, complete with satellite data, late last year, concluding that the CIA, the Pentagon, and private US military contractors have been working with the Kurdish militias to illegally ship at least $30 million in oil out of Syria each month.

In the DIA's estimation, the SDF was generating between $1 million and $3 million in daily oil revenues before the collapse in global prices earlier this year.

Iran: Threat or Anti-Daesh Ally?

Curiously, the congressional report also presents a contradictory picture of the role of Iranian-affiliated forces in Syria, with the DIA characterising them as a "persistent threat" to US and partner forces, while the Pentagon simultaneously points to an effort by the Syrian military and "Iranian-affiliated fighters" to carry out "sporadic counter-ISIS operations" in the central Syrian steppe, with the "Syrian regime" in Damascus also said to be engaging the terrorist group in other areas, such as Homs province.

Iran has limited its military assistance to Syria mostly to advisors and arms, and its forces were invited into the country by Syria's internationally recognised government to fight terrorism. Additionally, Iran is believed to support Hezbollah militia fighters hailing from Lebanon, who assisted the Damascus government significantly in staving off an assortment of terrorist groups in the early months and years of the Syrian civil war.