Rape and lies in Syria

May 13, 2013

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

Chicago—The second anniversary of the Syrian Revolution is marked, March 17, 2013. Photo by Roger Beltrami.

Chicago—The second anniversary of the Syrian Revolution is marked, March 17, 2013. Photo by Roger Beltrami.

Two years on, Syria’s remains an “orphan revolution,” and like many orphans it is seen according to the prejudices of the observer. The extent to which reality can thus be falsified is frightening, but as the con man knows, the mark’s got to want it first.

Bashar Assad’s status as an ally of Russian imperialism, both as arms client and as guarantor of Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base at Tarsus, has had many consequences. Some are obvious, as the diplomatic cover provided by Russia’s (and China’s) seat on the UN Security Council. Some are quieter, as were the rubles smuggled in to finance Assad’s shabiha terrorists.

Less noticed yet has been the way Assad has inherited the ideological apparatus, the corrupt ideas and willing propagandists, first developed in support of Russian ally Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide in Bosnia. This apparatus was honed during Russia’s devastation of Chechnya, then Serbia’s invasion of Kosova. It finally found a massive Western echo chamber after Sept. 11, 2001. The Syrian Revolution has been met with attacks by this apparatus from the beginning.


It is instructive to compare the 1990s, when pretty much only the women’s movement gave vocal support to Bosnia, with Syria today. Some of the same crimes are happening now.

The Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project, together with Syrian activists, has been collecting data on the occurrence of rape as a weapon. This followed reports from refugees that led to comparisons with Bosnia. Jody Williams, co-chair of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, has said, “With every war and major conflict, as an international community we say ‘never again’ to mass rape. Yet, in Syria, as countless women are again finding the war waged on their bodies—we are again standing by and wringing our hands.”

Perhaps it is actually more like Congo’s ongoing wars, where such scant attention is paid that little hand-wringing takes place. But the statistics that Women Under Siege has gathered show a definite use of rape (of both women and men) by Assad’s army and militias. Sixty percent of attacks are carried out by government troops, and 20% by the shabiha. Another 6% involve both these forces working together. For the rest: 15% of attacks are by unknown or “other” perpetrators, and less than 1% attributed to the Free Syrian Army.


Along with the horror of mass rape as a weapon comes the big lie that Assad is defending “secularism,” presumably with the aid of both Iran’s theocrats and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and is even defending women’s freedom. It is equal to the lie that he is somehow defending the country’s minority religious sects, despite his murder, torture and imprisonment of anyone who opposes him, whether Sunni, Alawite, Christian, Palestinian or Kurd. It would be hard to convince the bombed-out Palestinian refugees of Yarmouk, or the Kurdish villagers bombed in April, that he is their savior.

But again, there is a large body of propagandists who do assert this lie. They range from the many internet commenters, usually anonymous, who fill up news and web sites with pro-Assad comments (some that are known to me were also supporters of Milosevic) to a journalist like Patrick Cockburn who travels to Damascus and sees only what his prejudices incline him to see— mainly Assad in firm control with solid popular support.

Before the Arab Spring, Assad tried to project the image of a more “modern” ruler, and the world sent him architects, fashion designers, opera singers and musicians to create a Syria in its own image, without the torture chambers, or the massacres in Lebanon.

The celebrities are long gone. What remains is the desire not to see.

There are certain moments when the struggle for the soul of a revolution coincides with that revolution’s struggle for the future of humanity. I believe this is a basic understanding of Marxism. Maybe the world has such a hard time looking at Syria today because it fears to see itself there a little too clearly.

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