The Syrian Conflict Through the Lens of Women and Girls

By Carla Koppell and Allison Salyer

Syrian refugees walk along the outer perimeter of a refugee camp on the Syrian border. / Odd Andersen, AFP

The numbers are stark. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights currently estimates that some 150,000 Syrians have perished in that country’s ongoing conflict. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country, often multiple times; and approximately 2.7 million people have fled Syria, mostly into neighboring nations.

The majority of those are women and children, who have been exposed to serious risks during their flight, in camps, and in unfamiliar countries’ cities and towns.

The crisis in Syria presents humanitarian, developmental and demographic challenges that are seldom seen at this magnitude. We recently returned from Jordan and Turkey where we came away with very profound impressions regarding the gendered lens of the conflict; the challenge of gender-based violence (GBV); and, the roles that women are playing as agents of change.

It is hard to tell with any certainty exactly how many women are suffering various forms of sexual violence in Syria. Assessments, done by local and international organizations, do identify women and children as among the most vulnerable.

Anecdotally, many displaced Syrian women and girls report having experienced violence or knowing people that have suffered attacks, in particular rape.

A women carries food commodities in the Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab. / Odd Andersen, AFP

But in spite of this horrifying situation, we also heard several heartening stories that humble us and provide the motivation to push forward and continue to elevate the voices of women enmeshed in this conflict:

  • Stories of women negotiating local cease fires in Zabadani and of removing armed actors from schools in Aleppo;
  • Stories of women delivering life-saving medical supplies despite the grave risks to themselves and their families;
  • Stories of women in eastern Syria who worked with merchants to stabilize commodity prices so that citizens could remain in their homes;
  • And stories of women in Latakia who convinced armed groups to permit establishment of a local civil society presence focused on peace-building.

Making sure these women are heard will be key to ending the violence.

These stories show some of the ways Syrian women are leading their communities. And USAID is working to create space for other fearless women across the country as we support the establishment of democratic processes and institutions in Syria that advance freedom, dignity, and development for all of its people.

Syrian women cook outside their makeshift houses at the refugee camp of Qah along the Turkish border. / Bulent Kilic, AFP

Consistent with our commitments under the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (NAP) [pdf] we are seeking to increase the participation and representation of women, youth, and minorities in governing bodies, with a view to building confidence in peaceful and representative transitional political processes.

Our mission in Jordan is helping to create inclusive, effective and accountable institutions that serve all of its population. For example, one community and medical center that we visited in one of the largest and poorest urban areas in Jordan now serves a dynamic population of Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians — women, men, girls and boys — in the areas of computer literacy, job training, psycho-social care and basic education for young children. As a result of the far-reaching nature of the conflict and changing demographics of the neighborhood, the community has expanded its efforts to make services available to the entirety of the population.

USAID has stepped up commitments to meet the needs of women and girls, not only through our Implementation Plan for the NAP, but also in realizing the U.S. Government Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender Based Violence Globally [pdf]; the joint State-USAID Safe from the Start initiative; and through our shared leadership in 2014 of the Call to Action to Protect Women and Girls in Emergencies. We strive daily to live up to those commitments and eagerly look to the broader international community for collaboration.

USAID’s response in Syria and elsewhere around the world must serve, protect and empower all of those affected by crisis and conflict, and ensure their voices and priorities shape the humanitarian response and the approach to recovery and reconstruction.




This piece was originally published by USAID.

Jill Zabel

Throughout the world, authoritarian regimes imprison, torture, exile, and kill opponents that could challenge their leadership.  Where holding office is the reward for ruthlessness or loyalty to a deceased authoritarian leader, the most competent visionaries rarely rise to the top.  Cracking down on political opposition can clear the playing field of leaders that could manage a country’s democratic transition.

Some may shrug this off, insisting that the United States must be practical and work with whoever is in power to achieve their foreign policy aims.  To some extent, this is true since engagement is more likely to foster influence than isolation.  But focusing exclusively on existing leaders and power structures and turning a blind eye to their political oppression is short sighted and ultimately hamstrings the United States’ ability to meet key strategic goals.  As we have seen in several of the Arab uprisings, when the time comes to change political systems, there is often no one worthy of the United States’ full support.

Syria is a perfect example of how a long, sustained period of political repression can eradicate or neutralize opposition leaders and cause fallout for the United States.  Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafiz before him, systematically squashed criticism, severely limiting the potential leadership pool.  Killing or “disappearing” political opponents not only silenced those critics of Assad rule, it prompted others that might oppose regime policies to leave the country, taking their ideas of a more just and open society with them.  The Syrian system has actively—and often violently— discouraged the emergence of new leaders and governance ideas, but punishments were largely meted out to individual dissidents before March 2011.  Since then, the Syrian regime has collectively punished its population.  A recent United Nations estimate suggests that 80,000  Syrians have been killed, and over a million are displaced.

The Arab uprisings have shown us that popular frustrations can topple dictators but also that without a unifying leader, internecine fighting, score settling, fractured coalitions, and other problems can make for a bumpy transition.  The Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia and spread throughout Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere have proven that leadership in the sense of one man or woman leading the (literal or figurative) charge is no longer a precondition for  a revolution’s success.  Instead, technology and social media outlets facilitate leaderless revolutions that can sideline unresponsive leaders.  While popular support for regime change is essential, leaderless protests present a unique problem once the old government is gone.  When hundreds of bloggers, Facebook administrators, and other protesters coalesce to rid themselves of dictatorship, what single group or person can credibly assume the mantle of leadership and fill the power vacuum?

Although Syria has been mired in turmoil for over two years, the United States has rightly hesitated to throw its full support behind any of the opposition and rebel factions that have popped up on the scene.  It is not just because we are unsure of what the best realistic options are and how U.S. actions could help to achieve them.  It is because, despite scouring the Syrian opposition groups in exile as well as inside, the United States realizes there is no leader on the horizon who can unite the factions and lead Syria out of this mess—let alone one that could deliver a more open, free, and democratic Syria that would protect the rights of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, and Kurds alike.  Some Syrian opposition figures have had decent leadership credentials on paper.  For instance, the former head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, was a sociology professor who spent countless hours thinking about how to remake his country for the better.  However, three decades in France hampered Ghalioun’s ability to form a power base within Syria and he never gained sufficient clout within the opposition to forge Syria’s post-Assad future.

When Washington can’t find someone with the right combination of brains, values, tenacity, influence, and charisma to fashion a system that would institutionalize democracy and spur development, it looks to whoever happens to be the big guy holding the gun.  That has not worked in Syria since the armed opposition is every bit as fractured as its civilian counterparts.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has suffered from competing armed opposition groups, internal squabbles, and disconnects between FSA leaders in Turkey and fighters on the ground.  Furthermore, the FSA’s problems have made many potential benefactors wary to support it, and the FSA’s subsequent dearth of funding and equipment has helped to empower extremists like the Al-Nusra Front, which is better equipped.

The absence of a Syrian opposition leader with the necessary combination of leadership skills and appeal to multiple groups has resulted in the United States and many other Western countries dragging their feet on decisions to provide aid (lethal or otherwise) and truly commit to a post-Assad Syria.  Hundreds of Syrians die each week, among them innocent children.  Chemical weapons are used with impunity despite President Obama’s declaration that such a use was a red line for the United States. Syria’s Internet access is increasingly spotty, as the regime tries to hamper opponents’ communication and block news of U.N. resolutions against the regime.

As much as I hope Syrian people one day enjoy the benefits of democracy, I do not see a clear path to that in the near future, and things are likely to get worse before they get better.  I am not advocating for a particular course of action in Syria; instead, I am urging U.S. policy makers to understand that political repression is not only a human rights issue.  As we learn from Syria, depriving a country of critical voices and thought leaders can become a U.S. national security problem in already volatile regions.

While it is impossible to retroactively create viable leadership in Syria, the United States must use its influence to discourage political oppression within countries, while identifying potential democratic leaders and strengthening opposition voices.  The U.S. State Department, Freedom House, and others do an admirable job tracking political suppression; their reports should be taken into consideration when making decisions about aid, military exercises, and other engagement activities.  Wherever and whenever possible, the United States should cultivate and train new leaders, while taking into consideration the cultural and religious sensitivities of the country in question.   The United States should bolster its engagement with civil society groups and journalists through seminars, visits, and trainings, and speak out against imprisonment for reformist different ideas.  Bolstering U.S. efforts to identify and prepare potential democratic leaders would position the United States to see endangered dictators as an opportunity rather than an intractable problem.


Jill Zabel is an international security analyst with a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MA in International Security from Georgetown University. She is a regular contributor to the WIIS blog.

Selected Sources:

Foreign Affairs.  “Red Lines Matter.”  May 7, 2013.
The Guardian.  “Free Syrian Army rebels defect to Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra.” May 9. 2013.
The Atlantic Wire.  “Syria’s Internet Is Offline Again.”  May 15, 2013.
The New York Times. “U.N. Calls for Political Transition in Syria.”  May 15, 2013.
BBC Online.  “US Has Seen Syria Chemical Weapons Evidence, Says Obama.”  May 16, 2013.