Systematic sexual abuse perpetrated in Syria

Systematic sexual abuse perpetrated in Syria
In-depth: The Assad regime uses rape of women and men, girls and boys, as a weapon of war, but opposition groups are also guilty of abuses, reports Umar Lateef Misgar.
6 min read
27 March, 2018
Countless Syrians have been the victims of systematic rape and abuse during the war [Getty]
Rape, sexual abuse and other kinds of gender-based violence form a widespread component of modern asymmetrical warfare. The belligerents often employ systematic rape, mostly against women and girls, as a weapon of war to force the targeted community into submission. 

Modern history is replete with systematic sexual abuse against women and girls, including rape, employed not only to dismantle a dissenting community's will to fight but also towards the overall goal of total genocide. This was the case during conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kashmir, and now Syria. 

The war in Syria recently entered its eighth year. According to some reports, more than half-a-million Syrians have been killed throughout the course of the conflict, while millions remain displaced, some internally and others as refugees in neighbouring countries. 

As the Assad regime, with the support of Russia and Iran, crawls back into regaining control of territories from a plethora of armed groups, many other regional and international states are scrambling to secure their diverse interests in the country.  

Meanwhile, Syrians continue to face the wrath of this increasingly pointless conflict, especially in the form of rape and gender-based violence.

A recent report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a UN-affiliated body, sheds light on how sexual abuse and gender-based violence has been used by almost every belligerent group throughout the conflict. The victims included women and girls, as well as boys and men. 
  The Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad has been distinguished for the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate violence against all kinds of opposition  

The report is based on hundreds of interviews with "survivors, relatives of survivors, eyewitnesses, defectors, healthcare practitioners and medical personnel, lawyers, and members of affected communities". 

The regime 

From the onset of protests in Syria, the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad has been distinguished for the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate violence against all kinds of opposition. The regime and associated militias, according to the UN report, was the only party that perpetrated systematic sexual abuse against both females and males, mostly inside detention centres and at checkpoints. 

Sexual violence and rape was also inflicted during ground operations and house raids, according to Syrian Army defectors. Family members, including children, were forced to watch the rape of their women and girls inside homes and at checkpoints by regime forces "to inflict maximum terror and humiliation on the population". 

On certain occasions, women and girls were raped in public view. According to the UN report, in March 2012, many women were forced to walk naked in front of tanks by regime forces in the central city of Homs. 

Torture and sexual abuse was also rampant in detention facilities operated by the regime. The rape of women and girls was reported in 20 facilities. Similarly, men and boys were sexually abused and raped in at least 15 detention centres. Orders to inflict sexual abuse against detainees emerged high-up in the chain of command.   

The age of women and girls raped in detention mostly ranged between 18 to 45 years. However, the commission also documented the rape of a nine-year-old girl. The regime forces didn't even spare pregnant women, raping one woman to the point that she subsequently miscarried.

The torture in detention included beatings, electric shocks and mutilation of genitalia. Multiple instances of regime forces personnel inserting metal rods and other objects into the anus of detainees - women, girls and men - have also been documented by the UN report. The detainees were frequently forced to rape each other. 

Armed groups  

The rebel groups that were formed in the aftermath of the uprising have also engaged in sexual and gender-based violence. However, unlike the regime, this was not a systematic practice among the non-state armed groups. The UN report maintains that such incidents by the rebel groups primarily involved "elements of sectarianism, exploitation or revenge". 

On one instance, a girl was raped by members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after she was alleged to have collaborated with the regime. Many families were also pressured to marry off women and girls to FSA fighters.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)

The members of the former al-Qaeda franchise, previously known as the Nusra Front [Jabhat al-Nusra], restricted the movement of women and girls outside their homes and enforced strict dress codes in the areas under its control, particularly the north-western city of Idlib.

On at least one occasion, the rape of a male detainee was documented in a detention facility run by the group. In early 2016, three men were thrown off a building in Idlib's Khan Sheikhoun by JFS on the accusation of being homosexual. Later, in August 2016, JFS stoned a woman to death in the same city, accusing her of maintaining extramarital relations. 

The Islamic State group

The Islamic State group has been particularly singled out for its ruthlessness since it emerged across Iraq and Syria in 2013. When it comes to perpetrating sexual and gender-based violence, the group has not held back.

Twisting Islamic theology to justify systematic sexual slavery, the group abducted hundreds of Yazidi women in Northern Iraq's Sinjar in 2014, and built an elaborate bureaucratic system to trade the abductees deemed to be the spoils of war. Many ended up across the border in Syria. These acts were a part of what UN later concluded to be a genocide against the Yazidis.

According to the UN report, IS publicly stoned multiple women to death for carrying out their professional duties, inflicted corporal punishments on girls and women for buying make-up, and also killed sexual minorities. 

The group also imposed severe restrictions on the movement of girls and women. On one occasion, a pregnant woman was detained and beaten by al-Hisbah, IS' "morality brigade", for talking to a storeowner while purchasing some gloves. 

  Women were plainly refusing to visit the aid distribution centres for the fear of people assuming that they had offered sexual favours in exchange for aid  

The UN commission also documented instances of genital mutilation of detainees held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group dominated by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and heavily backed by the United States.

Recently, multiple reports emerged wherein many Syrian women complained of sexual abuse during distribution of humanitarian aid through local councils. Workers told media agencies that women were plainly refusing to visit the aid distribution centres for the fear of people assuming that they had offered sexual favours in exchange for aid.

Thousands of detainees, including women and girls, still languish inside detention centres in Syria and continue to be at great risk of sexual and gender-based violence. 


This widespread use of sexual and gender-based violence is bound to create fissures, especially within traditionally conservative societies such as Syria. The victims often show signs of extreme post-traumatic stress, and harbour feelings of worthlessness and shame. 

The absence of robust rehabilitation mechanisms, including counseling and psychotherapy, also makes it difficult to reintegrate the victims into their societies. Besides, the guilt and shame associated with sexual violence hinders the process of rehabilitation. In some instances, female survivors of rape in Syria have been subject to excommunication, divorce as well as "honour killings". 

Analysts and humanitarians are calling for the creation of independent commissions to investigate and prosecute these crimes, so survivors may reach some form of closure while simultaneously building rehabilitation mechanisms for their reintegration into society.    

Umar Lateef Misgar is a political analyst. His work has appeared in The Independent,, London School of Economics Human Rights Centre blog, and elsewhere.