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SYRIA

The French pupils who quit school for jihad

The news that two 15-year-old French pupils, decided not not turn up at their classes, but instead make the 4,400 km trip to join Al Quaeda fighters in Syria, left France shocked on Friday. They are the latest and probably youngest to join hundreds of French jihadist fighters in Syria.

The French pupils who quit school for jihad
One of two French boys, 15, from Toulouse who ran off to fight in the Syrian civil war. Photo: Screengrab/France TV

Who are the teenage boys?

They were typical 15-year-old high school students, their time consumed by social media, mobile phones and their studies. But somehow the boys became connected with jihadist recruiters online. Then on January 6th, instead of turning up for school after Christmas, they began their journey east to fight in Syria, apparently using their dad's credit card to fund the journey.

French newspaper La Depeche carried the helpless account of one of the boy’s fathers, who is hunting for his son. The father is among hundreds of French parents who have learned their sons have been convinced to fight and if necessary die among the rebels in Syria.

Why so many?

Since the conflict broke out over two years ago, foreign fighters have been drawn to the front lines in Syria. The number of French rebels has grown exponentially, with the number up to around 700, French President François Hollande said in his new year press conference on Tuesday.

French intelligence believes young men were first drawn to the effort to topple dictator Bashar al-Assad, but increasingly the fighting is attracting those who want to join in jihad, Islamic holy war. So it was for the teens from Toulouse.

One of the boy’s fathers, who has not been named, told La Depeche his son is Muslim, but doesn’t speak Arab, and was radicalized on the internet.

“From the start of December, my son was brainwashed online,” the father told La Depeche. “There were exchanges on Facebook, videos about the war in Syria. With his computer and on his phone, he was always on social media with his friend.”

The story has common threads to that of two other young men from Toulouse who joined the fight in Syria. Nicolas Bons, 30, and his 22-yeard-old half-brother Jean-Daniel had converted to Islam three years prior and then went to fight in Syria with an al Qaeda-linked group.

Jean-Daniel Bons was killed in August 2013 fighting, while his older brother was killed by a car bomb in December. Before they died the young men recorded a YouTube video encouraging their “brothers” to join the fight.

French authorities said they are facing a wave of recruitment for Syria previously unseen for other conflicts with a tie to the Muslim world.

“We are seeing today a mass recruitment that has nothing to do with the recruitment for the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan,” an unnamed source told French daily Le Figaro. “It was a couple dozen people per year. This is like a factory.”

The recruiters target at-risk kids and young adults between the ages of 15-25, but it’s also spread to boys with strong ties to their schools and communities. The key to this type of recruitment is the internet, which allows anyone to find “a brotherhood of arms that will consider him a hero if he joins the fight,” Le Figaro reported.

“A 15-year-old boy today possesses a physical and mental maturity that has nothing to do with kids the same age 20 years ago,” the source told Le Figaro.

What is next?

The young men who fight in Syria with al Qaeda-tied groups and survive will face, at the minimum, police surveillance if and when they return home. Charging them with a crime or for ties to terrorism is complicated at best for prosecutors.

In order to bring a terrorism charge, according to French daily Le Monde, prosecutors would have to show the fighter was involved in a terror attack on civilians or is part of confirmed terror group. The porous nature of Syrian rebel groups and their memberships make it difficult to clearly define terror links.

For the father of the 15-year-old boy, there is only waiting and hoping. He spoke with his son on Tuesday, apparently from Syria.

“He said we wouldn't hear from him for a month, if he was still alive,” the father said. “He was with al Qaeda fighters. During his last phone call to us, he was talking about the fighters as his brothers.”

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SYRIA

French group to open two hotels in Damascus

France's Louvre Hotels Group has signed an agreement to open two hotels under its own name in Damascus, the first with a western hotel operator since Syria's brutal civil war began in 2011.

French group to open two hotels in Damascus
Louvre owns the Golden Tulip five-star brand. Photo: Louvre Hotels Group
The confirmation of the two hotels opening, after recent media reports, came a day after the UN announced an internal investigation into the bombing of hospitals in Syria, and as at least six civilians were killed by the Syrian regime and Russian fire in northwestern Idlib province in the past days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
 
The region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
   
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
   
The hotels “will open soon under the brand name of Louvres Hotels Group,” the company, which is owned by China's Jin
Jiang, said in a statement.
 
Louvre Hotels Group said the deal was signed between Syria's Nazha Investment Group and “a partner with whom Louvre Hotels cooperates in the Middle East”.
   
The exact number of people killed in Syria's war is unknown but hundreds of thousands have died.
   
Several dozen medical facilities with links to the UN have been damaged or destroyed by bombs this year. Russian has denied deliberately targeting civilian installations.
   
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday said an internal inquiry would look into the bombing of hospitals in Syria which had previously flagged their coordinates to avoid air strikes.
   
“The deal is strictly in line with international law and all international directives regarding Syria,” the French company statement said.
   
According to the website, The Syria Report, it is the first agreement with a western hotel operator since 2011, when the devastating conflict began. Louvre Hotels Group was taken over by China's Jin Jiang in 2015 and it operates more than 1,500 hotels in 54 countries.
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