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Rape in Syria: a weapon of war or instrument of terror?

A Syrian woman in Turkey prays for those left behind. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

In Syria, rape is being used by armed groups as a means to an end. In this context, reports have emerged detailing the use of sexual violence by Syrian armed forces and paramilitaries loyal to Assad.

Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting sexual violence used by government agents in detention centres. Men, women and boys have reported rape, penetration with foreign objects, groping, forced nudity, and genital trauma while in the custody of the state.

The New York-based Women Under Siege, an affiliate of Gloria Steinem’s Media Center, has also began collecting reports from Syria on sexualised attacks. They currently have 81 stories of sexual assault reported over the past 18 months, mostly in home raids and residential sweeps. In a report of their findings, Women Under Siege indicate that 90% of women victims experienced rape and 42% experienced gang rape.

Women Under Siege describe these attacks as a widespread and systematic tool of war. The characterisation of sexual violence in the Syrian uprising by these organisations and by the handful of media reports focus on the various forms reported – from seemingly “opportunistic” attacks through to gang rape and sexual torture. Each type is conflated under the banner of “rape as a weapon of war.”

In such a conflict, it is difficult to determine the true extent to which rape and other forms of sexual violence are being intentionally used. If we take the reports as representative of a wider phenomenon, however, the “weapon of war” label (and the comparisons it draws with the conflicts of Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) is not entirely accurate.

In a lot of what we read on sexual violence in war, most attention is focused on forms of sexual violence. Little distinction is made between the perpetrators and between the types of victims.

Reports tend to focus on the numbers of perpetrators per victim, the physical extent of the abuse suffered, and the social stigma that victims of sexual violence experience as a result of their abuse. This has again been the case with reports of sexual violence coming out of Syria.

However, from the cases traced by Women Under Siege and by Human Rights Watch in Syria, it is possible to see a pattern to sexual violence based on the function it serves. Most of the reported incidents were perpetrated by the Syrian armed forces and its allies, including the Shabiha militia.

The attacks aim to instill fear and terror in not just the immediate victims of sexual violence, but the wider community connected with the victim. The effect on the audience, in this case, is at least as important as, if not more important than, the effect on the victim.

This function of sexual violence in Syria shows how rape can be used as an instrument of terror. Most of the cases are coming out of regions that have a strong rebel support base, such as Homs and Aleppo.

Syrian forces performing house to house raids in Aleppo. EPA/SANA

Sexual violence is perpetrated during home and community raids, at checkpoints and in detention. In an interview with ABC Radio National, Human Rights Watch Middle East deputy director Nadim Houry pointed to the worrying pattern of sexual abuse committed against mostly male detainees that included rape and electroshock and beatings to the genitalia.

These forms of sexual violence mirror those used by other repressive regimes against political opposition, such as Peru during the 1980-2000 civil war and Pakistan during the 1971 secession of Bangladesh. In each of these conflicts, sexual violence was typically employed by state forces and its allies against civilians sympathetic to insurgents.

Sexual abuse is used to terrorise the population, to deter would-be supporters, and to instill fear in government opponents. Sexual violence is particularly effective because of the social effects it has on communities.

Sexual violence as an instrument of terror is a distinct function in civil conflicts. An over-reliance on the blanket term “rape as a weapon of war” reinforces the idea that war, and the violence therein, is senseless and chaotic. But as arbitrary as sexual violence in conflict may seem, the patterns of its use reflect the underlying objectives of the groups involved. In civil wars, groups fighting for governance are much less likely to use sexual violence than are government forces trying to retain their grip on power.

Rather than overstate the significance of the sexual nature of this abuse, our focus should be on the function it serves. By looking to the underlying objective sexual violence serves, we can begin to formulate more effective responses. An account of sexual violence that considers the interests of the perpetrators will help us come up with better means to prevent and punish future perpetration.

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