Women’s Protection in Syria: Disinformation Is No Help
A ‘new report by the London School of Economics’ (LSE), so announced the British press – The Times, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror – describes sexual crimes against women in Syrian prisons. It alleges these to be a matter of state policy. Published just ahead of Geneva talks about a political settlement in Syria, the press interpreted it as supporting renewed calls for regime change.
The paper provides no new grounds for that conclusion, however. In fact, its sweeping allegations obscure good reasons why, under present circumstances, a responsible approach to the problem of sexual violence in Syria would involve supporting the government against the terrorist insurgents.
Some reasons can be gleaned from United Nations research into the problem. The UN found (in 2015 and again in 2016) that while some conflict-related sexual violence was perpetrated by state personnel, ‘non-State actors account for the vast majority of incidents’. The UN made clear that efforts to defeat groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, as the Syrian government is committed to, ‘are an essential part of the fight against conflict-related sexual violence.’ Such groups use sexual violence as part of their strategy to spread terror among those that oppose their ideology. They engage in trafficking of women and slavery. They drive the displacement of women who, then, ‘remain at high risk, even when they reach the supposed refuge of neighbouring countries.’
Marie Forestier, the LSE paper’s author, complains that the UN paid ‘disproportionate attention’ to the terrorist groups as perpetrators of sexual violence in Syria. She wants to highlight crimes on the government side, and she relays some horrific allegations about some individual cases. This illustrates specific experiences of a problem that the UN had signaled. However, while harrowing in themselves, these testimonies cannot speak to the comparative scale of the problem. Forestier therefore does not show the UN’s concerns about the egregious sexual violence of the terrorist insurgents to be disproportionate. Furthermore, her interviews relate to experiences from a period – 2012 and 2013 – that is earlier than covered by the UN reports of 2015 and 2016. Forestier herself admits that accusations of sexual violence on the government’s side were ‘most frequent from late 2011 to 2013, in disputed areas such as the Damascus suburbs, and in central and coastal governorates … with a peak in 2012, and comparatively fewer cases in 2014.’ She thereby shows the situation was worse in places where the government had to fight insurgents and improved when the government regained control. In light of her own admissions, it seems perverse to cite limited older evidence in criticizing considered conclusions of fuller and more up-to-date reports.
The perversity is heightened with unwarranted generalizations in the present continuous tense. Press coverage has, unsurprisingly, transmitted the message that the most shocking details of individual allegations from up to five years ago capture what is occurring on a general and continuing basis today. Forestier herself even makes demonstrably false general claims in the present tense. For instance, she says: ‘According to an estimate by United Nations investigators, Syrian security forces detain tens of thousands of people at any one time.’ However, the source she cites for this claim says no such thing.
Some of her most damaging claims are simply inexplicable, as when she says: ‘According to testimony, the overwhelming majority of men committing rapes have been State forces.’ This extraordinary claim flies in the face of the palpable evidence and reports of the UN. Bizarrely, the source Forestier cites for it is an article on ‘general data on sexual violence by state forces’ attained for 129 other conflicts, not including Syria, and during a period (1989-2009) prior to the outbreak of war in Syria.
The LSE paper’s headline message thus misrepresents what is actually shown regarding the extent of the government’s responsibility for sexual violence. Buried within its text are admissions that the paper should only ‘be considered as a starting point for further research’ and that ‘it is impossible to conclude that sexual violence by regime forces is a mass phenomenon.’ Yet this did not stop Forestier making such damaging accusations as that ‘rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities’ (p.12).
Regardless of lack of evidence, she seems determined to convey a message of rape and sexual violence being state policy approved at the highest levels. Yet she admits: ‘The decision to resort to sexual violence (or tolerate it) seems to have fallen under the regional level or even the branch and military unit level’. ‘No information indicates that high-level officials in Damascus ordered rapes’ and ‘the President or high level security officials probably didn’t give explicit orders’.
She rightly notes that ‘commanders may be prosecuted where they know or should have known of the abuses and failed to take action to stop them.’ She also correctly observes that ‘ending impunity is central in preventing sexual violence.’ I would add that ending impunity, like bringing the problem itself under control, requires well functioning institutions. The Syrian government is evidently aware of this, and, under difficult conditions, has sought to improve its systems for the protection of women and children, as welcomed by the UN OHCHR. But the good functioning of institutions is favoured by peaceful conditions rather than by war.
One does not have to be an enthusiast for the present government to recognize its legitimacy and the simple fact that it is uniquely well-placed as things stand now, and foreseeably, to protect ordinary men, women and children against violent threats.
Freed from ISIS
A realistic general presumption has to be that rape and sexual violence tends be more common in war than in peacetime. That is a reason – on top of so many others – why war should be avoided. A country that finds its territory turned into a battleground has to reckon with sexual violence being more prevalent than in peacetime, while its resources to tackle the problem are diverted and diminished. A government that has to defend its people against armed insurgents, particularly when these routinely engage in sexual violence, faces extraordinary challenges. That does not absolve it of responsibility for ensuring good conduct by its own forces. The practical ability of a government to maintain discipline, however, is not enhanced by having to engage on many fronts with ruthless opposition.
Realistically, and morally, the best way to avoid rape in war is to avoid war itself. I cannot believe that Marie Forestier would disagree on this general point, but I am less sure what she thinks with regard to the specific case of Syria, or even whether she has fully thought it through. The thrust of her argument would support continued efforts by foreign powers, exercised through terrorist proxies on the ground, to depose the government of Syria, something that could only worsen further still the problem of sexual violence.
By contrast, it may be instructive to consider the approach taken by the Kurds in the north of Syria. In 2011, Kurds were among the groups fighting against the Syrian government. Since then, however, they have become pragmatic allies of the government in a common drive to eliminate ISIS from Syrian territory. The Kurds also have a particularly enlightened appreciation of women’s central place in society. Consistent with their political philosophy, about a third of their fighting force is women. The Women’s Protection Unit or YPJ, is an all-female Kurdish military organization of about 8,000 volunteers, and growing. Meanwhile the Syrian Arab Army has emulated the Kurds by creating all women battalions along similar lines. Already, though, the Syrian army prominently featured all female units, including the famed Lionesses for National Defence unit of the elite Republican Guard. Western commentators who note the propaganda value of this also grant that its success reflects the wider social solidarity that has made the Syrian Arab Army so resilient. As a French commentator observes, ‘The war in Syria is a face-off between two societal structures and Assad is showing that, in his system, women have an important role, even in the defence forces’. If the Syrian government sees the propaganda value of promoting women’s equality, we might reasonably suppose it would see the irrationality of undoing such reputational gains by pursuing a delinquent policy of the kind Forestier alleges.
The fact is that what people widely believe throughout Syria – in Arab areas as in Kurdish – is that the overwhelming problem of sexual violence, like that of extremist violence more generally, comes from ISIS and other terrorists that violate, torture, enslave, traffic and oppress women. This is consistent with the UN findings. Forestier’s allegations are consistent only with the foreign drive for ‘regime change’.
For anyone genuinely concerned to deal with sexual violence occurring in – and occasioned by – conflict situations, a central preventive strategy is not starting a war in the first place, and not prolonging a war needlessly once started. It certainly means not intervening in a war on the side of those inflicting by far and away the most extensive and egregious sexual crimes.
In short, if the government had been supported in its efforts to defeat the insurgents, a great deal of sexual violence would have been avoided. Forestier’s claims, seen in this light, in being unfounded, are counterproductive and irresponsible. The view she opposes has a coherence hers lacks. It also has basic morality on its side. The problem with Forestier’s paper is not simply that it is poor research and writing. The real concern is that, in being publicly promoted, it has been fed into the narrative beyond academia that would continue seeking to destabilise Syria (and the wider Middle East) and to prolong conflict against the Syrian government. One effect of this would be to prolong the circumstances in which sexual violence continues unabated on that territory.
Civilians freed by Syrian Army
 United Nations Security Council, Conflict-related sexual violence Report of the Secretary-General 23 March 2015: https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/203. United Nations Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, 20 April 2016, S/2016/361 http://www.peacewomen.org/node/94106.
 I do not take propose to take issue with any of Forestier’s reporting of testimonies, even though her methodology is unclear. (For instance, she mentions that three interviews with survivors ‘were excluded because they seemed exaggerated or false’ yet she does not explain how she decided whose word to give how much credence to, particularly in cases where she was speaking through a translator via phone to someone she hadn’t met.)
 The source she cites is UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/ HRC/31/68, 11 February 2016, http://www. ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/ CoISyria/A-HRC-31-68.pdf. (Having checked that source I find the only mention of thousands of people refers to ISIS crimes. I could not find any statement remotely resembling her claim, and I would readily correct the record here if she can direct me to it with a page reference.)
 Dara Kay Cohen and Ragnhild Nordas, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, 1989−2009”, Journal of Peace Research 51(3) (2014), 418-428.
 This assumption is manifest, too, in her claim – made much of in the press reporting of her paper – that sexual assault in detention was so routine that contraception was supplied. Damning as this may be, assuming it is true, it does not self-evidently suggest that those assaults were part of a policy as distinct from an atrocious practice. It could in fact be taken to suggest a desire of perpetrators to prevent evidence of violations coming to light. A related claim involves the testimony of a victim that her attacker used Vaseline. Forestier takes this, along with the contraception, to ‘indicate that rapes followed a regular pattern that involved some degree of organisation and were part of a broader state policy of widespread repression against the civil population.’ Since the organization required is that of a visit to a pharmacy, and we can have no idea how widespread the practice was, we cannot simply infer what Forestier claims about a ‘broader state policy’.
 At one point she asserts that ‘when soldiers or militiamen raped women during military operations, this was part of the attack against their adversaries and their relatives. Thus, rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities.’ But the inference stated after her ‘thus’ is a non sequitur: she provides no reason to think such attacks follow from a policy rather than opportunism or vindictiveness.
 The presumption has to be defeasible, but it seems clear that simply to presume the contrary would be imprudent. For a discussion see e.g. Doris E. Buss, ‘Rethinking “Rape as a Weapon of War, Feminist Legal Studies (2009) 17.2: 145-163.
 Her puzzling take on the situation is illustrated by a claim like this: ‘the Syrian government has sought to increase antagonism between communities’ and ‘to frame the conflict as a fight between Alawites and Sunnis instead of a struggle for democracy.’ Yet the government owes its resilience precisely to a longstanding and conscious strategy of defusing sectarian tendencies. (The government has consistently framed the conflict as an attack on the secular multi-faith state by primarily Islamist jihadists.) Furthermore, however much a desire for greater democracy may originally have motivated the political opposition, the conflict that has ensued was taken over by jihadists committed to imposing the most anti-democratic regime imaginable.
 A fundamental tenet of Kurdish nationalism, as articulated by PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) founding leader Abdullah Öcalan, is that ‘a country can’t be free unless the women are free’. This political philosophy – given the name ‘jineology’– is embraced by the movement and its fighters, about a third of whom in the Kurdish region of Syria are women.
 Fabrice Balanche, quoted by France 24, 2 April 2015: http://www.france24.com/en/20150402-syria-women-soldiers-assad-army-propaganda
 Given its status as a Working Paper, the academic community is aware that Forestier’s claims have not been peer-reviewed. The wider world does not observe such niceties. The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Times did not. Most tweeters do not. They all present it as coming from the prestigious LSE. Which is fair enough, given that it features conspicuously on the LSE website. Since LSE has promoted this paper, there is a case for saying they should own it and answer for it. If my argument in this post is correct, there is a case for suggesting they should retract it.