Although the Syrian Civil War is not over, violence has waned, Assad’s hold on power is seemingly secure, and the threat of the Islamic State has diminished. As such, the aftershocks of the years of heavy fighting are hitting now, and women are bearing the brunt of them. The 2020 United Nations Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic illustrates this. After fighting alongside the United States for years, Kurdish women in the north of Syria have been left unprotected—both by the United States, which withdrew its forces from the north and permitted a Turkish invasion, and by the post-ISIS government of Syria.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are part of the indigenous population of the plains and highlands in a territory that is now divided into north-east Syria, south-east Turkey, north-west Iran, northern Iraq, and south-west Armenia. These territorial divisions originate from the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne when, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey negotiated its new boundaries with European powers, making no provision for a Kurdish state. In spite of this, the Kurds form a distinctive community with a unifying culture, race and language. Nowadays, Kurdish attempts to set up an independent state are brutally suppressed.
What happened in Syria?
In 2011, a peaceful pro-democratic uprising in Syria became a bloody conflict. Since then, all sides (including the American-Kurdish alliance) have ignored humanitarian law protection through attacks that the Human Rights Watch considered war crimes. Even now, after the conflict has become low-level and the fighting has died down, President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces subject hundreds to arbitrary arrest and torture. His power, consolidated through undemocratic elections in 2021, is considered relatively secure.
At the height of the fighting between the Russia-backed Syrian government and the pro-democracy rebels, the Islamic State capitalized on the violence and chaos. In its peak, it held around a third of Syria.
What did the Kurds do in Syria?
The Kurdish population of Syria were first involved in the civil war with the ultimate aim to consolidate an autonomous territory in the north. In 2014, the Islamic State sieged Kobani, a Kurdish town, prompting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to counter the attack. Their military effectiveness against ISIS proved their value as allies on the ground, and the United States—at this point heavily concerned by the threat of growing Islamic State influence—aided in ousting ISIS fighters from Kobani. Together, the United States and the YPG succeeded in rolling back the Islamic State to a handful of small territories, around 2% of what it once was. Women have been central throughout this, fighting in the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), leading the struggle as guerrilla fighters and political activists.
After collaborating with the Kurds to defeat ISIS, and despite Kurdish pleads for further help, the United States withdrew completely from northern Syria, leaving them unprotected against their enemies in Turkey. In 2019, immediate after US withdrawal, Turkish forces launched a military offensive against the Kurds. This was put to an end by a cease-fire in 2020. By then, the Kurds had been pushed to the margins of the country.
What dangers do Kurdish women face post-conflict?
ISIS no longer controls Syria; this conflict, largely fought by Kurdish forces, is over. Now, resulting resentments plague the Kurds, with women facing a disproportionate amount of violence, perpetrated mainly by the Syrian National Army (SNA), an armed opposition group most dependent on Turkey.
According to the United Nations Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, since the defeat of the Islamic State, there has been an increase in patterns of targeted abuses against women and girls. There is a “pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes,” as they are systematically detained by Syrian National Army fighters and subjected to rape and sexual violence (p. 13). For example, in the Kurdish town of Tal Abyad, at least thirty women reported being raped in February 2020. Moreover, Kurdish women are allegedly being abducted by and forcefully married to SNA soldiers.
Post-conflict dangers are, moreover, not limited to Kurdish-held territories. Among the hundreds of families displaced from their homes, the UN Commission has noted a choice not to return to their homes out of fear of sexual violence and rape.
Accountability is sorely lacking. A former judge in Afrin, a previously Kurdish town now under Turkish control, confirmed to the Commission that SNA soldiers had been charged with carrying out sexual violence during house raids—but none had been convicted, only released after some days.
Prominent women’s rights activists have also been targeted. For example, in 2019, Kurdish political figure Hevrin Khalaf was beaten and murdered, and photographs of her mutilated body were later seen on social media. Moreover, in June 2020, Turkey allegedly killed three women in a drone attack, among them well-known feminist figure Zehra Berkel. This attack occurred in the same town, Kobane, where most people first heard about female combatants fighting against ISIS. As such, the attack was interpreted as symbolic. Officials in the region reported that Turkey is systematically targeting female activists and leaders. Often, the resulting mutilated corpses are stripped naked and displayed online, although the extent of the Turkish government’s involvement in this is unknown.
Prof. Dror Zeevi from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev explained that, given the prominence of the targeted women as soldiers as well as fighters, the attacks are likely not committed by Turkish soldiers but by mercenaries working for the Turkish state as a kind of “payback or revenge.”
Understanding post-conflict violence against women
After the United States withdrew its troops from northern Syria post-ISIS-defeat, Kurdish towns were forced to hold their own against attacks. As such, there was insufficient time or stability to form any measures of post-conflict protection and rehabilitation. This would have been particularly important for veteran women, who would have to face violence both as the more sexualized gender and as the segment of the population who fought in active combat.
Yet, this violence is not unique to Kurdish ex-combatants. Their struggle is part of a historical pattern of victimization of women post-conflict.
According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, gender-violence spikes in post-conflict societies, primarily against women, as the rule of law is weak, weapons are widely owned, and social and family structures are broken down. This is consistent with the UN Commission report’s findings in Syrian Kurdistan.
During and after conflict, women also face trafficking due to the breakdown of political structures and increased militarism, and essential services like healthcare (including sexual and reproductive care) can be disrupted. This exacerbates the risk of unplanned pregnancy, death as a result of injuries from assault, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted infections, making the issue of conflict-related sexual violence all the more serious.
By targeting women, perpetrators also aim to destroy social structures. This phenomenon is studied deeply by feminist theorists of International Relations, who explain that sexual violence against the women of a community is intentional post-conflict; it is a systemic way of destabilizing social bonds. This is achieved, firstly, through the trauma that the women, themselves, suffer—a trauma that may force them to step down from their roles (in both leadership and caretaking spheres) as a result of mental or physical complications. It is achieved, secondly, by isolating those women and the children they may bear as a result from their communities, as their marriages and families may break under cultural. With their chastity questioned, women can find themselves marginalized, both inside the home and outside of it. Thirdly, this act indirectly attacks the leaders of society—its soldiers and activists—by highlighting their inability to protect themselves and their citizens.
This feminist explanation for sexual violence fits well within the Syrian context. For instance, the UN report noted that the rape of women and girls by SNA fighters caused them “severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms related to ideations of ‘female honour’.” Moreover, it states that these acts caused a “pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes,” precluding their acting as functional members of society for a time, and therefore hindering the healing and rebuilding of that society.
The fight is not over for the women who, as part of the Women’s Protection Units, fought in the name of Kurdistan against the Islamic State. Despite their victory and efforts, the American withdrawal of support left their people vulnerable, not just to the 2019 attacks organized by the Turkish government, but to sporadic violence by their old enemies on the battlefield, the Syrian National Army. This example illustrates the dangers that women in particular face post-conflict, particularly when their gender intersects with an ex-combatant status; it demonstrates the urgent need for survivor-centric post-conflict rebuilding.
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Marina is a third year War Studies student at King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.