This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing civil war engaging multiple parties, but largely fought between the Syrian Arab Republic under President Bashar al-Assad and a range of other domestic and foreign forces that oppose the Syrian regime and each other. The civil war began in 2011. On March 15, 2011, during the Arab Spring protests, there were major protests against the incumbent regime and calling for Assad’s removal. These protests were met with brutal repression and crackdowns. With time, a range of actors joined the conflict: the Syrian Armed Forces and its domestic and international allies, an alliance of Sunni opposition rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, Salafist Jihadist Groups, the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In addition, several countries like Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the US have been involved directly or indirectly in the conflict – the latter by offering support to individual factions. Clashes continue to abound in the country. As of 2015, the conflict resulted in 3.8 million refugees, and 10.9 million Syrians being displaced internally (Rifai and Haddad 2015). As of January 2020, over 380,000 people had been killed since the war started (Naquin 2020). A large number of grave human rights violations have been committed in the course of the war, including the use of chemical weapons, torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions. By 2012, the use of rape and sexual assault by pro-government militias targeting mostly women and girls came to light (Women Under Siege 2012).
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Rape and sexual violence has been used as a strategic tactic of war in the Syrian Conflict by the pro-government supporters, members of the Free Syrian Army, and the ISIS (Litsas and Tziampiris 2015; Priddy 2014). The International Rescue Committee has indicated that rape has been a “significant and disturbing feature” in the Syrian Civil War, and attributed the displacement of 600,000 women out of the war zone to the prevalence of rape and sexual assault (Fitzpatrick 2016).
Rape and sexual violence has been used as a tactic of suppression of protests by the pro-government forces since the beginning of the war in 2011 (Flock 2011). When state forces entered Daraa, for example, they organized the rape of women in the region through a systematic campaign (Bentley 2016; Omar 2015). A report from Save the Children indicated that girls and boys around the age of 12 were targeted with sexual violence (Minano and Andrzejewski 2017). In addition, the ISIS also perpetrated sexual violence and sexual slavery. For most of 2013, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) released figures indicating that it had provided psychological help to around 38,000 people in Syria who had been victims of either rape or gender based violence (Miles 2013).
Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
The use of rapeand sexual violence to target women and girls among protesters was motivated by the understanding that women who are raped may be subject to honor killings, prevented from getting married, and face stigmatization in society. It is used as a means to breakdown social structures by targeting women. Sexual violence was also used as a means to target protesters as part of the campaign on cracking down on them. For instance, in Jisr al-Shugour, it was used when the homes of female protestors were raided when they were asleep (Tuysuz 2011).
Al Rifai, Diana; Haddad, Mohammed (17 March 2015). "What's left of Syria?". Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2015/03/left-syria-150317133753354.html
Bentley, Michelle (2016). Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo: Exploiting the Forbidden. Manchester University Press. p. 109
Fitzpatrick, Brenda (2016). Tactical Rape in War and Conflict: International Recognition and Response. Policy Press.
Flock, Elizabeth (21 June 2011). "Women in the Arab Spring: The other side of the story". Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/women-in-the-arab-spring-the-other-side-of-the-story/2011/06/21/AG32qVeH_blog.html
Litsas, Spyridon N.; Tziampiris, Aristotle (2015).The Eastern Mediterranean in Transition: Multipolarity, Politics and Power. Routledge.
Miles, Tom (8 January 2013). "U.N. aided 38,000 victims of Syrian gender-based violence in 2013". Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-rape-idUSBREA0711R20140108
Minano, Leila; Andrzejewski, Cécile (2 July 2017). "How The Assad Regime Used Child Rape Aa a Weapon Of War". Zero Impunity. https://zeroimpunity.com/how-the-assad-regime-used-child-rape-as-a-weapon-of-war/?lang=en
Naquin, Leora (4 January 2020). "The death toll in Syria has exceeded 380,000 in almost nine years: Monitor". Technoea News. https://www.livemint.com/news/world/syria-death-toll-tops-380-000-in-almost-nine-year-war-monitor-11578143112160.html
Omar, Manal (18 March 2015). "The Women in the Middle of the War". Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/18/the-women-in-the-middle-of-the-war/
Priddy, Alice (2014). "Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict in 2012". In Casey-Maslen, Stuart (ed.). The War Report: 2012. Oxford University Press.
Tuysuz, Gul (20 June 2011). "Syrian men promise to marry women who were raped". Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/syrian-men-promise-to-marry-women-who-were-raped/2011/06/20/AG6sO1cH_story.html
Women Under Siege. "The ultimate assault: Charting Syria's use of rape to terrorize its people". 11 July 2012. http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/blog/entry/the-ultimate-assault-charting-syrias-use-of-rape-to-terrorize-its-people