Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
A woman displays a victory sign during an anti-government demonstration in Idlib, 2012. (FreedomHouse / Flickr)
This month marks the two-year anniversary of the antigovernment protests that kicked off the Syrian uprising. So far, the conflict has claimed roughly 70,000 lives, made refugees of one million people, and displaced an additional three million. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged food, medicine, and non-lethal military aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with $60 million directed to the rebels' political wing to help with the provision of public goods and services in the rebel-controlled areas.
This is a good start, but in order to prevent further human catastrophe and the spread of Islamist extremism in Syria, Washington needs to do more. Specifically, the United States should aid opposition women's organizations. This strategy would help address the current humanitarian crisis and ensure that aid reaches its intended receipts, in addition to elevating the status of women in Syria.
Syrian women have been active in the fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime from the start, dating back to the peaceful demonstrations in early 2011 in the southern city of Dara'a. They have remained actively involved even as the fight has become bloody. I met several of these women revolutionaries during my recent trip to the rebel-controlled countryside of Idlib province and to towns on the Turkish-Syrian border. These women smuggle guns to the opposition and make improvised explosive devices in their kitchens. They work in field hospitals saving the lives of FSA fighters. They document incidents of torture and sexual violence, in the hope that such information will be useful in a future war-crimes tribunal. Whether Sunni, Kurdish, Christian, or Alawite, with hijab or without, these women are fighting for a common objective: a free Syria.
In contrast to some other groups, such as the Tamil Tigers and the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party -- as well as Assad's forces, which now include some all-female militias -- there are no female fighting squads in the armed Syrian resistance. Nor are women employed as suicide bombers, as they have been in the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, women revolutionaries, both inside and outside Syria, are largely involved in humanitarian efforts, such as providing food and medicine to the displaced and the injured. The United States unequivocally supports such efforts, making Syrian women good candidates
for U.S. aid.
Because women are rarely involved in the armed side of the revolution, they are much less likely to get stopped, searched, or hassled at government checkpoints. This has proved crucial in distributing humanitarian aid throughout Syria. Syrian women have participated in aid relief deliveries both to FSA-controlled areas and -- covertly and at great risk to themselves -- to areas still under government control. To evade arrest, women inside Syria communicate largely through Skype and Facebook to provide neighborhood-level reports on security conditions and aid needs. Syrian women outside the country, largely based in Turkey, raise support and funnel it over the border.
One woman I met with, Hiba Alhaji, is a member of the Free Syrian Women organization, which claims to have 300 members and provides assistance to displaced women and children. She brought 100 kilograms of flour to a needy displaced community in Idlib province. Another, Rania al Kisar, an activist from Damascus currently operating out ofthe Idlib countryside and the Turkish border city of Reyhanli, recently smuggled food and blankets to the government-controlled suburbs of Homs through the sewage system. Al Kisar also runs the biggest Syrian women activists' online network, known as the Syrian Women's Revolutionary Committee, which has more than 45 women rebels inside Syria and more than 5,800 followers on Facebook. Al Kisar, who is in her thirties and a mother of three, commands enormous respect from the FSA officers with whom she collaborates in conducting humanitarian efforts. She pushed back when some FSA members tried to take over the distribution of resources to the internally displaced in the Atmeh camp, maintaining the integrity of her aid network.
Al Kisar's actions exemplify how Syrian women are not only better at identifying and supporting vulnerable communities; they are also more effective than male-led rebel factions in preventing the mismanagement of aid. Women have repeatedly identified men in the opposition who have tried to misallocate vital resources in hospitals and camps for the internally displaced. They have held them accountable in Syrian Facebook groups, Skype chat rooms, and in the field. Alhaji, who is establishing a school for children in the Atmeh camp, has personally secured and overseen the provision of school supplies to ensure that they don't end up being sold on the black market.
Like the opposition as a whole, women revolutionaries are not yet organized into one unified organization. They are, however, much more cohesive and diverse than the all-male rebel groups. For example, Renas Sino, a Syrian Kurd, and Rajaa Altalli, a Christian originally from the Damascus countryside and currently on academic leave from her Ph.D. studies at Northeastern University, co-founded the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, based in Gaziantep, Turkey. The center conducts civil society training inside and outside Syria and has educated more than 50 Syrian women activists of all ethnic groups and sects on how to work together to change Syrian society. They are also open to cooperating with other like-minded groups. Suhaila Rahhal, a Sunni Muslim from Aleppo, is a highly respected activist who has worked with Alhaji and Altaali. Rahhal believes that women of different sects and religions are able to cooperate because "a woman can never be the president of Syria, so we don't care about power. We just want our country to be free."
Syrian women's organizations are also a useful resource in properly allocating aid to factions of the opposition. After all, many of these women are the mothers, sisters, or wives of fighters and are sympathetic to the armed struggle. Thus, they know the makeup of the resistance much better than Washington does, and could better ensure that U.S. aid does not end up in the hands of extremists -- common enemies of the activists and the United States.
Syrian women are acutely aware of the dangers that jihadists pose to their society. Several of those I spoke with anticipate another struggle after Assad is toppled -- one for women's rights. Making matters worse, few women opposition leaders have experience in politics. Historically, most of the political positions reserved for women in Syria have been occupied by female members of the Baath Party or by the government-controlled General Women's Union of Syria.
Even within the opposition, women's contributions to the revolution have gone unrecognized. Women have a token presence in the formal bodies of the opposition and have been granted only three out of 60 seats in the newly constituted National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which the United States recently deemed the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people. This lack of representation not only ignores the plight of women in the ongoing conflict but also disregards the tremendous work that Syrian women continue to do in supporting the resistance.
Syrian women activists see the curtailing of women's rights in post-revolutionary Iran as a cautionary tale. They have also noticed how women leaders in the Arab Spring movements in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya have been sidelined. There are only nine women in the new Egyptian parliament and, under President Mohamed Morsi's watch, women protesters have been beaten, stripped, and subjected to virginity tests. In Libya, the rise of political Islam and patriarchal tribalism has led to the reinstitution of polygamy and the suppression of women's rights. The Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in her country's opposition, but the formal political scene there remains bereft of women. These outcomes are less than ideal both for women in the Middle East and for Western leaders.
Washington would do well to invest in one of the more responsible, effective, and aid-worthy factions of the Syrian resistance. To stop Syria from following the problematic trajectory of other Arab Spring countries and turning into a repressive society, the international community should financially support women's work in the revolution. As al Kisar put it, "Men will go on their knees for us if we have money for the struggle, and they cannot win without us."