A growing refrain out of Syria is that widespread rape is taking place—and sanctioned by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
But when WhoWhatWhy examined the allegations, it found that well-intentioned women’s groups trying to document and prevent such abuses may be falling victim to a deliberate disinformation campaign intent on rallying public support for toppling Assad.
If so, this would not be the first time false or exaggerated allegations involving women or children were used to generate public anger and build support for military action. This is a particularly effective and cynical approach—in part because it appeals to the very constituencies most resistant to war and its toll: women and human rights advocates.
While rape is horrifically common throughout the world, and more so in conflict zones, so, too, are “psychological operations” intended to shape perceptions and outcomes. Many regimes, particularly authoritarian and totalitarian ones, lie routinely to their people, but as the purported exemplars of high standards of truthfulness and accountability, the United States, Britain and their allies are expected to uphold those values.
Fomenting public outrage is hardly a new thing. Hitler used it to rally the German people. But it is not just genocidal maniacs abroad who manipulate public sentiment. Widespread opposition to US entry into World War I was overcome through an extensive range of propaganda efforts, including untrue stories of German soldiers bayoneting babies. Ironically and tragically, when credible indications of the Nazi death camps arrived in the United States, the government did nothing, the media punted, and the public, in part because of prior untruths, remained skeptical.
During the first Gulf War, a Kuwaiti princess appearing in the guise of an ordinary, anonymous eyewitness, appeared before Congress and told false stories of Iraqi soldiers killing newborn babies by taking them out of incubators. These stories, concocted by a publicity firm tied to the George H.W. Bush administration, were cited by senators supporting an invasion of Iraq. In 2011, we were told that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had “ordered” mass rape.
In the Iraqi case, more people heard the original charges than the later corrections. In the Libyan case, the media simply reported the original allegations but failed to report that no corroboration had ever emerged. The allegations simply vanished.
Because we had written early and often about rape allegations in Libya, we wondered if similar claims might surface in Syria as well. We did not have to wait long to find out. In the summer of 2011, one of the first claims came from Oliver North of Iran-Contra Scandal fame, in a syndicated column that provided no support for the assertion that:
In Syria, Bashar Assad’s violently repressive regime continues a vicious campaign of rape, plunder and murder orchestrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in an effort to retain control over the Syrian people.
A UN report on human rights violations in Syria last fall repeated several witnesses’ claims that security officials had warned them their female relatives would be raped if they did not cooperate. It also cited several allegations that men were anally raped with batons and boys raped by security officials. Given the police baton rape of Rodney King in Los Angeles as well as the conviction of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for repeated acts of “deviant forcible sexual intercourse” with minor males, and a related coverup by the university, as well as human rights group reports on the frequency of prison rape in the United States—to say nothing of within the US military—Americans well know that such acts can take place anywhere. But because the Assad regime is notably cruel and corrupt does not in itself tell us that Assad would see a campaign of sexual terror as useful when he is already struggling to maintain public support.
The UN report, interestingly, made no mention of widespread organized rape of women.
Nonetheless, an organized, calculated, Syrian government rape operation was portrayed recently in numerous news outlets, including The Atlantic. Here’s how the US-based international news website Global Post headlined it:
New project charts rape in Syria
A new project tracks reports of sexualized violence in Syria, where attacks are usually carried out by regime forces.
Of particular interest is the subheadline, saying that sexual attacks are “usually carried out by regime forces.”
In the case of Libya, wide coverage of similar allegations was quickly followed by a growing Western chorus for the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi. But once Qaddafi had been ousted by a huge international military effort, we no longer heard a peep about those allegations—nor saw proof that they were accurate. And now, with Syria an urgent priority and Western countries struggling to overcome Russian and Chinese opposition to intervention, the echo is loud indeed.
Rape allegations represent a separate and powerful appeal to emotion, distinct from charges of massacres. The Western media also carried unverified accounts of Qaddafi’s forces committing massacres of unarmed civilians that were never borne out and seldom publicly corrected. Meanwhile, more recent allegations that rebel Libyan forces—rather than Qaddafi’s—had committed massacres have not been investigated by the new Libyan authorities, who, after all, represent the victorious rebels.
Recently, as we noted here and here, early reports suggesting that Syria’s Assad and his force were solely or principally responsible for massacres of men, women and children have been negated by partial retractions—though anecdotal evidence suggests that many more heard and still believe the original claims than the subsequent cautionary reports.
Recently, defectors, a growing tool in the propaganda arsenal, have been cited warning that Assad has and will use chemical weapons—again, a story famously and falsely utilized to build support for intervention in Iraq. For its part, the Syrian regime, well aware that it is losing the war of words and of how this could be used to justify another NATO bombing campaign as in Libya, has taken the atypical step of publicly promising that its chemical weapons stores are secure and will not be used against the insurgents or Syrian civilians. It has, however, just announced that it would consider itself entitled to use it against foreign invaders—a clear warning that it expects but hopes to discourage NATO from doing what it did to Qaddafi.
A Story Fit For the Tabloids
The new rape allegations have a particular, horribly evil story line, beyond the magnitude of “normal” awfulness.
The GlobalPost story contained this sickening account:
A Syrian girl remembers being kidnapped and kept in an apartment with other young girls. Each day, people in charge of the units would inject the girls’ thighs with an unknown substance, leaving them paralyzed. With the girls unable to move, they were then raped by security forces. In one instance, the girl recounted a soldier burning her genitals with a hot iron. The horrific story is one of many now recorded and posted online by Women Under Siege, an initiative by the Women’s Media Center.
Could all this be true?
Having not heard of Women Under Siege, we at WhoWhatWhy decided to check out the organization, contact it, and seek more details.
At the group’s website, we read this:
A note uploaded to a personal Facebook page written by an engineer describes multiple instances of rape as gathered by a Syrian expatriate and her husband who traveled to Jordan to meet with rape survivors. The couple said they met with the women in two apartments being rented by Saudi individuals to serve as shelters for rape victims.
The couple said they spoke to 17-year-old girl who was raped and kidnapped when her family’s home was searched. The girl was subsequently “moved from one apartment to another for 15 days. Every apartment was guarded and had a woman responsible for five to 10 girls in the apartment. Every day, the girls were injected with a substance in their thighs, after which they became unable to move, and the shabiha [plainclothes militia forces] would rape them.”
During one rape, the girl told the couple, she was tied, undressed, and her genitals, including the inside of her vagina, were burned with a hot iron. She said she passed out and awoke later at a Syrian detention center in Damascus known as the Palestine Security Branch.
Upon her release, she escaped to Jordan, where she has since undergone “multiple reconstructive surgeries,” she said. She is reportedly suffering lasting effects from the unidentified substance that was injected into her thighs, including visible injection sites and a blood disorder.
This is the URL of the Facebook report: https://www.facebook.com/notes/hadi-al-bahra/بوح-من-واقعٍ-مُر-الاغتصاب-هل-هو-واقع-ام-حرب-اعلامية-و-نفسية/10150943043755606. Other cases from this Facebook note appear here: https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/reports/view/58 and here: https://womenundersiegesyria.crowdmap.com/reports/view/60 .
When we went to the facebook page cited, we found it was from a man named Hadi Al Bahra. Al Bahra’s personal facebook page shows that he is a male, from Damascus, Syria— but is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Al Bahra is the General Director of Saudia Online, a portal for all things Saudi. Saudi Arabia, a country with its own abominable record on treatment of women and human rights generally, is a leading advocate for military intervention to overthrow Assad.
More on Al Bahra here: He was born in Syria, and migrated to the US at 18, decades ago.
We contacted Mr. Al Bahra by email, seeking to interview him, but he did not respond.
Beyond that very vague “report” from Saudi Arabia, we know nothing. We don’t know who the “Syrian expatriate” and her husband are. We have no way of knowing that they exist, and if they do, that they actually told Al Bahra the story posted on the Women Under Siege website. Even if they did, we don’t know that they are telling the truth. Even if they are, we don’t know that whoever told them that story was telling them the truth. And even if everyone is telling the truth, it still doesn’t mean that Bashar Assad is behind a campaign of deliberate sexual brutalization—or that such claims should be the basis for massive foreign military power to effect regime change in Syria.
Just a caveat, always needed in such articles: Assad is a brutal dictator, as exist throughout the world—and he and his family have been behaving brutally for decades. There is no particular evidence that his regime is demonstrably more vicious than it has ever been, excepting for his use of his military to suppress a foreign-backed domestic uprising at all costs. Any fair comparison would have to take into account the amount of firepower, the fatalities and casualties incurred by Western military campaigns in places ranging from Vietnam to Iraq.
There also is no history of the United States and its allies insisting that other brutal, authoritarian (but allied) regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and the Gulf States also abdicate.
It Gets Worse
Here is another report from the Women Under Siege website:
Doctor tells of 2,000 women being treated in Damascus for rape
Dr. Malaz Alatassi, a founder and board member of the Syrian Sunrise Foundation, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization based in the U.S., testified at the European Parliament on April 23, 2012, about atrocities in Syria.
Alatassi reports that he has spoken with a female physician in Damascus who says she is treating some of the 2,000 girls and women raped throughout Syria who have come to Damascus seeking support. The youngest was a 7-year-old girl who died on the operating room table, he said. Many women are pregnant and/or have tested HIV-positive, according to Alatassi. There is not enough medical, psychological, or social support to treat the women’s needs, he said, adding that many have lost husbands or parents.
WhoWhatWhy looked into the nonprofit humanitarian aid organization founded by Dr. Alatassi, the Syrian Sunrise Foundation. You can find the articles of incorporation of the Foundation here. It was incorporated in Delaware—a low-disclosure state more typically favored by for-profits than non-profits.
The incorporator of the foundation was Asim Ghafoor of Sterling, Virginia. Ghafoor has been in the news in the past. He was political director of the now-defunct Islamic Free Market Foundation, cofounded by Grover Norquist, the influential GOP operative. Ghafoor, an attorney, was a partner in a consulting firm that advertised good connections with US Homeland Security (and for a time had a Redskins game skybox for rubbing elbows with bigwigs), though he also represented various charitable entities that were investigated for alleged terrorist ties.
We emailed and later spoke with Alatassi. We asked him if he could put us in touch with the Syrian doctor cited in his report. He said that he would pass along our request for a Skype conversation. We did not hear back from the doctor or Alatassi.
YouTube’s Astonishing Policy Influence
In an interview, Gloria Feldt, a former president of Planned Parenthood and a member of the Women’s Media Center’s board of directors, said it was her understanding that the Syria project was an indirect outgrowth of conversations between Steinem and the author of a book about sexualized violence in the Holocaust. She said Steinem was struck by how “sexualized violence had gotten no recognition as one of tools of repression and genocide.” Apparently, with Syria the current top story about war, the organization thought it would be an ideal place to document the role of sexual violence there. (Steinem herself was on a writer’s retreat and, according to her office, unavailable for comment.)
Seeking to establish where Women Under Siege gets its Syria information, we contacted Lauren Wolfe, the young journalist running it. She referred us to Karestan Koenen, a Columbia University epidemiologist who has taken the lead on the information collection. Koenen herself was a victim of a brutal rape—not in Syria, but as a volunteer for the US Peace Corps in Niger. She is one of several women who came forward to reveal that the Corps sought to suppress the story of how its own employees were victims while working in largely friendly countries. (President Obama has signed legislation to provide additional protections.)
We spoke to Koenen while she was attending a conference in Brussels. Koenen made clear that the group’s information is almost entirely second- or third or fourth-hand and largely comes from unverified web postings. “The overall goal of the project is to map in real time alleged sexual assaults in Syria,” she said. “The reports we have thus far are mostly identified through researchers and activists who do systematic searches of the web—Google, YouTube, etc. Most results are from that. Some are from human rights groups, some from journalists.” Koenen noted that a very few of the allegations have been emailed to them from individuals claiming direct knowledge.
She readily conceded that there is no way to know who is taking the time and effort to create such web postings. Presumably it is not victims themselves. And she agreed that such claims should be treated with caution. She did, however, note that it is difficult to obtain accurate, documented information in real time, and that waiting until the conflict is over is also not a viable option.
As for the trends from the inputs, Koenen says, “In the vast majority of reports we’ve received—about 70 percent, the perpetrators are government forces. The fact we haven’t received so many reports about the [opposition] Free Syrian army doesn’t mean they haven’t committed rapes. We have gotten a few.”
Koenen told us that Wolfe was imminently due to speak about rape in Syria on a panel at the United Nations, shortly before the Security Council was to take yet another vote on whether to dramatically increase sanctions against Assad.
Because of Russian and Chinese objections, the Security Council did not approve those sanctions. But the United States and its allies made clear they intend to go forward with toppling Assad, and do not need UN acquiescence. As the New York Times noted:
“We’re looking at the controlled demolition of the Assad regime,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Source: Lieberman and McCain?
One of the early and leading claimants for mass rape in Syria is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of US military interventions in Iraq and Libya. He, along with his friend John McCain, has been in the forefront of pushing for US military participation in support of the uprising against Assad.
By his own account, though, he is often skeptical of the value of inquiries. He by statement or action backed away from inquiries into Hurricane Katrina malfeasance and refused to investigate the murders of civilians by Blackwater in Iraq.
And as Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman declared: “We like to do legislation,” Lieberman said. “We don’t like investigating … just to see who is at fault.”
Far fewer people who are reading the headlines about Assad being behind mass rapes are likely to read this caveat on the Women Under Siege site:
The thing is, rape is nearly impossible to confirm. …
When documenting rape, as in anything, you have to evaluate your source: Is this coming directly from the woman who was violated? From her cousin? Her cousin’s friend? In the case of Syria, many stories are coming from that cousin’s friend. Or from the cousin’s friend who “heard about” a friend of his brother’s sister…etc. Right now, Syria is a convoluted black hole of second- and third-hand reporting that few conflict zones can rival in recent history.
The sources reporting rape directly to our crowdmap or via news outlets vary: Fathers speak out for their daughters, doctors for their patients, and, perhaps most surprisingly, many of our reports are sourced from former Syrian army soldiers admitting (forcibly? We can’t know) the crimes they have committed. It’s a sinkhole of fact-checking. But, for the sake of our humanity, we believe we have to mark all of this down and try.
This is why we’ve chosen to post all our reports on WomenUnderSiegeSyria.crowdmap.com as “unverified.”
In our interview, Women Under Siege’s Koenen noted: “We have no evidence there are orders [by Assad] to do this. It seems to be widespread, in over a dozen locations, but at this point I wouldn’t be able to say.” And, asked about whether there is something unique about what is alleged in Syria that would make this a special case for military intervention, including a probable bombing campaign and all that entails, she said: “We don’t have a sense whether sexual violence is more common in this conflict than in others.”
For more on rape as a worldwide problem (including the fact that eighteen percent of women in the United States have been victims of rape or attempted rape), see this.
Finally, in order to advance the public interest, WhoWhatWhy makes this offer: We are a small nonprofit with limited editorial resources. But if someone of substantial means (though no agenda) will step forward to fund it, WhoWhatWhy will put a team in-country in Syria and try to establish whether the headlines accurately portray what is going on. We promise to report, fairly, whatever we find.
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Correction: As first posted, this article erroneously stated that Women Under Siege had first been alerted to Syrian rape allegations by Joe Lieberman. The current version contains the corrected text.