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Syria’s Silent War Crimes Call for Intervention
Recent events in Syria raise concerns that the redline of chemical weapons use has been crossed, forcing the U.S. to reconsider intervening in the two-year civil war. At this crossroads, it is important to look beyond the use of chemical weapons and at the entire scope of the conflict and range of weapons used – including rape.
The widespread use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of war in Syria has been one of the most under-reported aspects of the conflict, though its impact is one of the most devastating and longest lasting. Rape works as a weapon of war precisely because no other weapon can cause the same level of terror, pain, and destruction and still remain relatively inconspicuous. Rape – of men, women, and children – is not just torture for the individual survivor, assuming he or she survives. It is a weapon that can be used to break apart families forever, force people to flee, and tear at the fabric of communities that are the foundation of society.
In places like Syria, where a woman’s and her family’s honor are deeply intertwined with her perceived purity, rape and sexual violence take an even more devastating toll. Because any sexual act outside of marriage is considered extremely shameful, survivors of rape are forced to face the physical, psychological, and emotional trauma in silence or risk losing their family’s support – or their life.
The stories of sexual violence leaking out of Syria are grim and most clearly illustrate the tragedy that is unfolding there. Women and girls are attacked by gangs of armed men in public or in their homes, often in front of their family members. Soldiers kidnap girls, and torture and rape them for days before killing them. Mothers, wives, and daughters of political prisoners are taken into detention centers and raped by soldiers in front of their imprisoned loved ones, who have often experienced similar torture. At roadblocks and checkpoints, parents are forced to hand over their daughters to soldiers in exchange for safe passage. Survivors live in fear of retaliation by their assailants and know their own families could kill them in the name of honor if they report their attack. In one extreme case documented by the International Rescue Committee, a father shot and killed his own daughter as an armed group approached; had the soldiers raped her, it would have been worse than death.
The pervasive level of sexual violence is also one of the leading drivers of the Syrian refugee crisis, which reached over 1 million people in March. A study done by the International Rescue Committee found that Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan consistently cited sexual violence as the primary reason their families fled. But women and girls often fare little better in refugee camps. Security is notoriously poor, and justice virtually unavailable. Given the dire economic conditions many find themselves in, some families marry their young daughters to wealthy men who come to the camps to find a “temporary” wife whom they marry, take away from her family, and abandon after a few days or weeks.
Rape and sexual violence are not going away, particularly as the majority of the perpetrators are those still in power. In a study done by Women Under Siege, government forces and pro-regime shabiha perpetrated 80 percent of reported rapes, mostly occurring in government detention centers, at checkpoints, and during raids on towns. Less than 1 percent of such reported attacks were committed by Free Syrian Army forces; unknown attackers, occasionally with shabiha, were responsible for the rest. While it is unclear whether rape is an explicit strategy of the al-Assad regime, there are striking similarities in reported attacks, indicating such violence is not random. For example, many survivors were told by soldiers who raped them, “You want freedom? This is your freedom.” The lack of any action to stop these assaults and the impunity perpetrators enjoy fuels the crisis.
In a conflict of Syria’s scope, it is easy to lose sight of what is happening on an individual level, when seemingly greater security concerns exist. When cities are destroyed, a government is crumbling, and regional stability is threatened, attacks on civilians, particularly sexual violence, tend to become a secondary concern, brushed aside with a regrettable shrug. Some say, “That’s war.” Except it’s not.
Rape and sexual violence are not unavoidable byproducts of war. Studies have shown that the use of sexual violence by armed groups varies greatly from one conflict to the next. For example, a study by the Peace Research Institute Oslo of 48 conflicts in Africa from 1989 to 2009 found that 64% of armed groups were not reported to be perpetrating sexual violence. In April, the G8 took a stand on this issue by endorsing the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and committing $36 million to the effort. At the announcement, UK Foreign Minister William Hague said, “Today, we know the facts about sexual violence in conflict and we have the means to address it, so we must not look away or rest until the world faces up to its responsibilities.”
On this issue, we must act. Our failure to act would guarantee that war crimes continue and put peace even further from reach. The trauma, destruction of families, and break-down of communities caused by sexual violence will be with Syrians for decades and will hinder a full reconciliation and a full peace.
What are the options? We should ensure our current assistance efforts address the needs of survivors of rape and civilians in fragile situations, including increased medical and psychological assistance, improved refugee camp security, and measures to alleviate economic hardship in camps. We should denounce the al-Assad regime for failing to take action on these crimes, and begin building evidence files for war crimes trials. If the U.S. commits to greater intervention, we must ensure that we do so in a way that protects civilians. This means upholding established standards for treatment of civilians, providing assistance to survivors of rape, and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence among our allies and our own forces.
And as we look to the end of the conflict in Syria, it is critical that women are included as full and equal stakeholders and participants in the peace process. Experience has taught us that peace agreements made solely between combatants focus on power-sharing agreements, but don’t actually lay the groundwork for lasting peace. As the war in Syria has taken a devastating toll on civilians and women in particular, their voices must be part of an inclusive and democratic peace process. Ask a woman what security means, and she will say it is not just an end to fighting – real security means schools for her children, jobs for her family, basic services, healthcare, and justice for what was done to them. Real peace addresses severe inequalities and injustices and meets the basic human needs of all. It prevents the build-up of resentment and hatred that too often spark the next conflict.
This is a tall order. It is much easier to draw a line in the sand and declare a victor. But an inclusive peace process is possible, and the stakes are too high to risk cobbling together a peace that won’t last. If we intervene, we must do so with the goal of establishing lasting peace, determined to include the voices and concerns of women who are typically, and tragically, left out. Anything less would be wasted effort. Because the truth is, there is no “real” security without women’s security.