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Q & A on the War in Syria

Posted on: Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Keywords: Syria, Middle East

For more than two years, we have been watching Syria—first with hope and then with a growing sense of horror—as peaceful calls for freedom degenerated into a protracted war. 

Urgent concern for the millions of Syrians caught in the crisis should motivate us to support a peaceful resolution. But how do we ensure that public compassion isn’t hijacked in the service of military intervention that seeks to entrench US power in the region without real regard for the rights and well-being of most Syrians? 

To understand why military solutions are false solutions and where progressive debate on Syria should be headed, we need to understand the complexities of the conflict and the real-life impacts on those who are most threatened. 

As the war consuming Syria rages on, this resource explains the conflict, its impact on women and families, and the solutions we need to support now.

What is the war really about?

In 2011, young Syrians joined the peaceful protesters of the Arab Spring and demonstrated against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Their example, and the brutal repression they faced from government forces, triggered a mass popular uprising calling for rights and democracy.

The reality today is significantly changed. Syrian rebels have taken up arms against Assad’s government, and much of the country is under siege.

Superimposed onto Syria’s civil war is a regional, even global, battle for influence: Iran, Russia and China are arming Assad and blocking efforts to sanction Syria through the UN Security Council. The US, EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel oppose Assad’s government.

It gets even more complicated: Saudi Arabia and Iran are each using Syria to further their own ambitions to dominate the region. The US is allied with Saudi Arabia but is wary that a rebel victory may not propel its interests. The contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran is overlaid with sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims that are being manipulated to spur the fighting. Inflaming these differences is tearing at the fabric of Syria’s diverse society and may further destabilize Lebanon and Iraq as well.

What has been the impact on women and families?

Syrians are confronting one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world, with a death toll now over 100,000. The total number of Syrian refugees is set to pass 2 million. Two-thirds of the refugees are women and their children—most are under age 11.

Women and girls have been targeted with sexual violence used to terrorize, a threat many cited as their primary reason for fleeing the country. An investigation by the Women’s Media Center tracked reports of rape and documented testimonies revealing the deliberate, politically-motivated nature of these attacks. When a soldier in the Free Syrian Army was captured by government forces, women from his family were brought to the prison and raped in front of him. Government soldiers who raped three sisters in one home allegedly said to them, “You want freedom? This is your freedom.”

Why don’t we hear more about sexual violence in this war?

Sexual violence as a weapon of war seldom receives sufficient or accurate media attention. Many women who recount traumatic events in striking detail will insist that it happened to a neighbor. Women who have survived rape face stigma and the possibility of rejection and even violence from their families. These factors dissuade many women from speaking out.

Many women do not survive these attacks, with evidence to suggest that some are killed to prevent them from identifying their attackers.

What are the conditions for Syrians who have become refugees?

Syrians desperate to escape the war have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, sometimes arriving by the thousands in a single day. Relief agencies and host countries are overwhelmed by the numbers and by the need.

In Jordan, Za’atari refugee camp is now the fifth largest city in the country and may become the largest refugee camp in the world before the end of the year.

As refugee families grow more destitute, women and girls face threats of child marriage and forced prostitution. Child marriage is seen as a way to ensure that daughters are cared for and fed, and to generate scarce income for the family through the bride-price. But girls sold into marriage are extremely vulnerable to abuse, lose opportunities for education and risk serious health hazards of early pregnancy.

Some refugee women have been forced into prostitution by their families, under the cover of short-term marriage arrangements. There is often a permeable barrier between coerced marriage and sex trafficking. Women and girls sold into marriage are sometimes abandoned or sold again to brothels or traffickers, where their abuse and exploitation only worsens.

Since Syrian President Assad is a dictator, shouldn’t progressives support the opposition?

There is no question about the brutality of Assad's regime. But neither is there any singular opposition to rally around. The secular, democratic voices that were at the forefront of the uprising two years ago have been sidelined.

Today, the rebels are a conglomeration, including the al-Nusra Front, linked to al-Qaeda, and the Free Syrian Army, which is a catch-all term for numerous other groups and individual foreign fighters. Moreover, reports in recent weeks suggest that soldiers from the Free Syrian Army have been shifting allegiances to the better resourced and more militarily successful al-Nusra Front.

Like Assad’s troops, these opposition forces have also committed human rights violations, targeting people said to be supporters of the government. Meanwhile, Assad continues to have deeply-rooted support in Syria, particularly among the business class and minorities, who fear a fundamentalist take-over of Syria and increasing sectarianism.

In fact, as the opposition has become dominated by brutal forces with a reactionary social vision, some Syrians who were strong supporters of the opposition at first are now siding once more with the government. They may not be Assad supporters, but they worry that a fundamentalist take-over of Syria would be even worse.

If there are no “good guys,” who do we support?

As progressives, we need to understand the complexities of Syria’s crisis and move beyond the simplistic logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Being critical of US imperialism in the Middle East doesn’t require defending the brutality of Assad's government, and opposing that regime doesn’t require supporting rebel forces who would also deny human rights and rule using violence and religious coercion.

There are two things progressives can do instead. One is to dialogue with and amplify the voices of those Syrians who are currently marginalized within the opposition but share a peaceful, democratic vision for their country. The second is to stay focused on those who are most threatened by this war—Syrian women and families—and reach out to them with humanitarian aid and solidarity.

Why doesn’t MADRE support US military intervention to ease the suffering of Syrians being brutalized by Assad’s forces?

Compassion for Syrian civilians should, indeed, guide US policy. But military action is a false solution that will only exacerbate the crisis.

In many ways, the US had already begun to intervene before President Obama announced in June 2013 that he would send "small arms" to Syrian rebels. The CIA had reportedly worked with Turkey to send an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment to the Free Syrian Army. Other reports suggested that the US is working with Jordan to train rebel fighters.

Under increased pressure from politicians like Senator Robert Menendez, the Obama Administration announced plans to arm the Syrian opposition. But Syria is already awash in weapons that will be circulating in the area for years to come. Funneling more arms to the opposition will fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria. The Obama Administration should be offering political and diplomatic support to people who share a vision rooted in human rights and creating space for Syrians to negotiate resolution to the conflict, prioritizing women’s participation as integral to a viable peace.

A rising chorus of US politicians, led by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are calling for the creation of a “no-fly zone” to disable the Syrian government’s air force. Yet the US bombing required to enforce a “no-fly zone” would kill and injure more people. It would also give Assad the means to consolidate support among Syrians fearful of US intentions to occupy and destroy Syria as the US did in Iraq.

Moreover, roughly 10% of casualties in Syria have been caused by Assad’s Air Force. The vast majority have been brutalized by ground forces, rendering a “no-fly zone” a very weak form of protection. The real aim of the policy is a show of US military force meant to threaten Iran and other rivals in the region.

What is MADRE doing to respond?

MADRE is working with Syrian refugee women in Jordan to meet urgent needs and lay the groundwork for women’s voices to be heard in calls for peace and representation in negotiations. Responding to what Syrian refugee women have told us they need most, MADRE is partnering with local women’s groups to provide:

  • Humanitarian aid tailored to women’s needs, including health supplies and solar lanterns to help prevent night-time attacks on women and girls.
  • Reproductive healthcare, including midwifery services and access to contraception and family planning.
  • Counseling on domestic and sexual violence, early marriage, and child abuse prevention; and programs to rebuild social networks destroyed by displacement.
  • Trainings and legal referrals so that women can know their human rights, access their rights as refugees and document human rights violations and obstacles to justice.
  • Bridges between Syrian refugee women, local women’s organizations and international networks and policymakers, to ensure that women’s priorities are integrated into humanitarian and peace-building efforts.

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