Posted by Matthew Barber on Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
As some are saying that IS now controls 50% of Syria, see this thorough post on the significance of the regime’s loss of Palmyra: Islamic State captures Tadmur (Palmyra) in new sudden streak of offensives – Oryx Blog
In a surprising new streak of offensives launched at targets in both Iraq in Syria, the Islamic State has managed to capture the ancient city of Palmyra, known today as Tadmur. With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.
Tadmur, which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime’s last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State’s newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable. …
… Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State’s hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region. …
— A.E. Marshall (@Aemar_) May 23, 2015
The article Marshall refers to is The Cell of Survival: Bara Sarraj from Dec. 2011, about a young man who spent 12 years in Syria’s prisons, including the notorious prison in Palmyra.
His story begins on March 5th, 1984, an ordinary Damascus morning. He was on route to university, where he was a second year electrical engineer student. He decided that morning he would read Ahmad Shawqi’s play, The Death of Cleopatra, on his two hour bus commute from al-Mezzeh to the university. He also brought his small English dictionary to study during the often boring lectures. At his destination, he saw a double line of students waiting to be searched before entering the building. He thought, “I feel sorry for the guy who is going to be taken.” He knew the lines meant the mukhabarat were looking for someone specific. After passing through the doors, someone called him by name, he turned, and a man said, “We need you for five minutes.” He felt “his heart drop to his feet.” After a few hours of waiting and interrogation, he was blindfolded and placed in a car. He thought he was on his way to General Intelligence in Kafar Souseh, outside Damascus, but he wasn’t. Instead, the car took a cross-country detour to a prison in his home town, Hama.
He would disappear for the next twelve years, touring the depths of Assad’s dungeons, in Hama, Tadmor, and Sayd Naya. Bara Sarraj was twenty-one years old. …
… While he experienced several of Assad’s prisons, the most horrific was Tadmor. The city of Tadmor or Palmyra, is the jewel of ancient Syria. An archeological treasure, Palmyra is Syria’s prized tourist attraction: an authentic site of Roman ruins set within an authentic Arabian desert landscape. This isolated location, far from the cities and population became home to Tadmor, the prison, where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and executed. On June 27, 1980, Rifaat al-Assad ordered the execution of a thousand prisoners in one day. (This is a very conservative number, it may have been up to four thousand. It also took two weeks to clean the prison from the bloody aftermath.) When a prisoner entered Tadmor, it was unlikely he would leave undamaged, or even alive. According to Bara, Tadmor is a synonym for fear, in all of its definitions: terror, horror, panic, dread. “Language cannot describe it. Fear is the internal sensation when you physically feel your heart between your feet and not in your chest; fear is the look on people’s faces, and their darting eyes when the time for the torture sessions comes near.” Bara learned to be first in line to go to the torture cell, because “the fear was worse than the pain.” …
… Tadmor was closed in 2001, at the beginning of Bashar’s presidency, perhaps to end one of his father’s darkest chapters, perhaps it had become obsolete—there was no longer a need to fight a defeated people. On June 15, 2011, Tadmor opened its gates once more to welcome the first wave of 350 people who had participated in the uprising. …
The United Nations says it has received reports that Syrian forces in Palmyra prevented civilians from leaving, ahead of its fall to Islamic State militants. The UN, though not present in Palmyra, cited “credible sources”. …
IS has also taken control of a military airbase and a notorious prison near to Palmyra.
Meanwhile, IS has seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq after Syrian government forces withdrew, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The loss of the al-Tanf crossing in Homs province means the Syrian government does not control any of the country’s border posts with Iraq.
The fall of Palmyra comes just days after IS captured the major Iraqi city of Ramadi.
The US has acknowledged the militants’ gains are a “setback” for coalition forces targeting IS, but President Barack Obama insisted the US was not losing the war with the group. …
ISIS in Palmyra – Dexter Filkins – New Yorker
In their rampage across Syria and Iraq, the zealots of ISIS have wrecked and looted countless sites of archeological wonder: in the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad, they’ve smashed temples and icons; in the Mosul Library, they’ve torched ancient manuscripts; at the Mosul Museum, they’ve turned deities and statues to rubble and dust. They even sacked Jonah’s tomb. Happy in their work, the ISIS wrecking teams have posted videos of their deeds. We can now only wonder if Palmyra, an ancient city in central Syria that fell to ISIS fighters this week, is next.
I visited Palmyra in the summer of 2003. It was a strange time to be in Syria. The Iraq War was only a few months old. The situation inside Iraq was deteriorating fast, but in Damascus, among the members of Bashar al-Assad’s government, there was still a pervasive fear that Syria would be the next American target. There was a wild rumor about government officials streaming to a certain palm reader in Aleppo, in order to have him divine whether and when the American invasion would come; even Assad himself, the rumor went, had paid the soothsayer a visit. I stayed in a Sheraton, then the nicest hotel in Damascus, and every night the senior officials of the Baath Party, some of them wearing pistols in their belts, would gather to drink and dance and carouse. When I asked one of those senior officials, Bouthaina Shaaban, whether the regime would ever loosen its grip, she told me, “We will always believe in the vanguard role of the Baath Party.” One day, I drove to the Iraqi border, where I found dozens of jihadis waiting to cross over to fight the United States; the Assad regime was only too happy to let them pass. …
… What will happen to Palmyra now? With ISIS in control, we should fear the worst; the place is filled with just the sort of religious likenesses that ISIS fighters have been smashing in their lunatic journey. What they don’t destroy they will likely loot and sell; ISIS has made millions this way. There is reason to hope that some antiquities will survive. Syrian officials say they managed to cart off many of the most priceless icons to Damascus before ISIS arrived. “This is the inheritance for the nation and for humanity,’’ Muhammad al-Shaar, Syria’s Interior Minister, told reporters this week. (Shaar, otherwise known for his iron fist, must have been grateful to be able to sound so humane.) …
… Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, told The Associated Press that militants entered the museum in the town’s centre Friday afternoon, locked the doors and left behind their own guards. He said that the artifacts earlier had been moved away to safety.
“We feel proud as all the museum’s contents were taken to safe areas,” he told reporters. But Abdulkarim warned that the Islamic State group’s control of the town remains a danger to its archaeological sites. The group has destroyed several sites in Syria and Iraq, and also has had a lucrative business by excavating and selling artifacts on the black market.
Activists had said the government emptied the museum of its content before the Islamic State assault on the town.
The city’s museum and artifacts have been damaged and looted earlier during Syria’s four-year civil war. In a 2014 government report prepared for the U.N.’s cultural agency, damage already was recorded because of fighting in the area around the Temple Bel. Bullets and shells hit the temple’s columns, while two of its southern columns had collapsed. The report also recorded looting.
Abdulkarim said some 6,300 artifacts from Syria were seized and smuggled out of the country in the last four years. …
Thanks to Jeurgen for posting the following article:
Good article on the fall of Palmyra in french. Use google or bling to translate. Palmyre : «L’Etat islamique méprise la notion même de patrimoine» –> Palmyra: “The Islamic state despises the very concept of heritage”
Excellent: Anyone who bothers about the stones of Palmyra will also care about the souls of Tadmur – Boyd Tonkin – Independent
The distinction between a concern for the fate of people and of antiquities is a false dichotomy
… A visitor to Palmyra who has just posted pictures on the BBC website writes that he found something “slightly disquieting about feeling so strongly about the destruction of such astonishing cultural artefacts given the likely human toll”. Only a marble-hearted aesthete would not share that twinge. Yet Heinrich Heine wrote the first, and last, word about such pangs of conscience: “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too.” Many people know Heine’s line, which now graces a plaque on the Bebelplatz in Berlin, where the Nazis stoked their literary bonfire in May 1933. Fewer know its original context. It comes from his 1821 tragedy Almansor, and refers to burnings of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition.
With Isis, the breaking of “heathen” statues and “heathen” bodies belongs to the same jihad. Both serve the struggle for absolute monotheism against idolatry. Yazidis, Shias, Christians, Jews and indeed anyone who offends the Isis leadership no more deserves to survive than a carved Assyrian bull or a sculpted Roman goddess. Some 2,000 miles from the battlefront, we can respond to this iconoclastic mayhem with mourning, rage or defiance. The one reaction in which we should not indulge is bafflement at some alien, exotic passion. For Palmyra’s, or Nimrud’s, present was our past. “And this also,” says Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, as his ship lies at anchor in the Thames at the start of Heart of Darkness, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” …
When Dr. Bara Sarraj heard that Islamic State militants had overrun the city of Palmyra and its ancient desert ruins, he began to cry.
But he wasn’t crying over the World Heritage Site that now may be destroyed by hardline fighters keen on erasing history and selling off antiquities. Instead, his mind drifted to a place of nightmares just a stone’s throw from Palmyra’s tall, cream colored pillars — Tadmor military prison. …
… Infamous for what were said to be summary executions and massacres in the 1980s and 1990s under former Syrian President Hafez Assad, the military prison was shuttered — at least on paper — in 2001 after his son, Bashar Assad, assumed power. There remains uncertainty over whether or not it was truly closed. After the Syrian revolution and subsequent war exploded in 2011, Syrians allege that Tadmor was reopened as a place to imprison dissidents.
Under the first Assad, the prison was a “kingdom of death and madness,” according to a 1996 Human Rights Watch Report that detailed a 1980 massacre in which at least 500 prisoners were killed in one day. An Amnesty International report from 2001 says the prison, in which detainees are “completely isolated from the outside world” seems to have been designed to “inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners.”
Torture tactics included hanging victims from suspended tires, full-body beatings with sticks and cables and strapping victims to the “German chair,” a metal contraption that would forcefully bend their spine. …
… “It’s an indictment of the free world,” Sarraj said. “If Daesh freed Tadmor, then what is the free world doing?” he asked, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic nickname.
The irony that ISIS opened the doors of such a symbol of repression in Syria is not lost on Nadim Houry, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. …
… A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, said Thursday in Geneva that the Syrian regime blocked civilians in Palmyra from fleeing in the face of the Islamic State group until the government forces themselves were able to leave. She also cited grave concerns about ISIS’ crimes in the city.
“ISIL has reportedly been carrying out door-to-door searches in the city, looking for people affiliated with the government,” she told Reuters. “At least 14 civilians are reported to have been executed by ISIL in Palmyra this week.” …
… Unconfirmed reports circulated on Twitter Thursday claiming that ISIS militants released prisoners from Tadmor, including over two dozen Lebanese. The WorldPost could not independently confirm these claims. …
… Sarraj worries that any remaining detainees — cut off from the outside world inside Tadmor — will be recruited by the Islamic State.
“When I was released, I had no idea that the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said. “I had no idea what Bosnia and Herzegovina was. You are in another world and suddenly you are out.”
“They would be happy with anyone who liberates them,” he continued. “Maybe they will end up fighting against the West.”
See also these FB comments from Prof. Stephennie Mulder:
Some thoughts about Palmyra, partly in response to many Syrian friends who have been rightly criticizing the outcry over ancient stones while untold millions of people are suffering. I just finished an interview with Al Jazeera English and they did a very nicely balanced report. It discussed the 140,000 people, including many refugees, living in the nearby modern town of Tadmur, the atrocities of the Syrian Army, both human and cultural (we should not forget the Syrian Army has been filmed looting the site already last year, see the photo below), and the infamous prison there, where Assad has tortured political prisoners for decades. All of this context for the discussion of the archaeological site is what is needed.
Clearly, we must have have concern for people first, but culture is also an essential part of us as people, as human beings. It seems so hard to imagine now, but someday this war will end, and a people without history, with nothing left of their past, will be a people doubly traumatized. ISIS knows this, and that is one reason they’re targeting such sites – just as happened in the war in the former Yugoslavia with the destruction of the Mostar bridge – which, after the war, became a reminder of the city’s integrated Christian and Muslim past. Its rebuilding became a powerful symbol of the ongoing significance of its value to actual people. Stones do matter, and they matter to people, because they tell us who we are. I also think that sometimes culture galvanizes outside concern not because people are callous and don’t care about human life, but because sometimes the death of so many innocent people, so unbearable and unspeakable, is so awful to contemplate that people simply can’t bear it. Most people simply feel helpless in the face of death on this scale, and turn away in despair. Having concern for culture then becomes a way to express concern that seems concrete, in some sense. I don’t think this is right, nor am I defending it, I’m just trying to explain the phenomenon in less cynical terms. I also tried to make the point in the interview that the safety of the people in Tadmur should be our first concern, and the heroic efforts of Syrian heritage workers who are valiantly trying to save these sites is also an important part of the story.
A last thought – to return to the question of why I think it is problematic to speak about cultural heritage and people as though they are separate and unconnected. And that is that in fact, people *do* die because ISIS is destroying culture. Every day. Why? Because ISIS’ sale of antiquities looted from sites like Palmyra funds their reign of terror, and because, as Elyse pointed out so eloquently, destruction of cultural heritage is a primary tool of genocide. So each one of these sites and the looting that will take place there can, quite literally, be cataloged in human lives. If ever there was a reason to fight to #SavePalmyra, that is it. We cannot disentangle human lives from the culture humans have made and cherish. Does that mean we should save an ancient temple before we save a Syrian child? Of course not. But it also means we can’t think of them as separate and unconnected, and that the fight to save one should also be seen as the fight to save the other.
Recent Regime Losses and Contingency Plans for Potential Mass Displacement
Many observers are wondering whether the regime’s recent losses portend its demise, and debate how much of a fight it still has:
Why Assad is losing – Brookings – Charles Lister
Syria’s rebels are making sweeping gains, as foreign powers up support and work with Islamist fighters. But the regime isn’t about to go down without a fight.
After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.
However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.
So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.
The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.
However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. …
Is Assad Losing the War in Syria? – Aron Lund
Judging by a lot of the media coverage of the Syrian war, President Bashar al-Assad runs a curious sort of regime: it is always either crumbling or on the verge of victory.
The narrative shifts every now and then. Assad was losing from March 2011 until around October 2013, then he was winning for about a year and a half, and now he is back to losing again. The story is consistent only in that it remains reliably hung up on the extremes of victory or defeat.
Only rarely will the Assad regime be described as what it most probably is: a decomposing rump state plodding through a confused civil war toward an uncertain future, with no one quite sure anymore what victory would even look like. The Syrian government may lose more territory and break down structurally, perhaps even rapidly and catastrophically, but its constituent parts are not about to vanish from the face of the earth. In the hypothetical event of Assad’s death or withdrawal from Damascus, his armed forces would not cease to exist. Some would flee and some would die, but what remained would melt into a new ecology of militias and mayhem—and the war would go on. …
Assad’s regime is brittle, and it may fall fast – Bob Bowker
It is not yet possible to say whether, when and how the Syrian regime may fall. But recent military setbacks, and an objective analysis of the challenges the regime faces in the longer term, strongly suggest that its future is increasingly precarious.
The momentum of the military conflict has shifted in favour of the rebel movements, foremost of which are the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey. Much of the reversal of rebel fortunes appears to have been derived from a deal between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, brokered by Qatar, under which a joint operations room facility has been established among the rebel forces. Having captured Idlib and the even more strategically important town of Jisr al-Shughour, they are now within striking distance of Hama to the south and Latakia to the west. They have cut the Aleppo-Latakia highway.
In contrast, efforts by the regime this year to win back Deraa, near the southern border with Jordan, and to secure control of Aleppo, have failed. With Hezbollah support, the regime is now engaged in a battle for control of the Qalamoun mountainous region straddling the border with Lebanon west of Damascus. It is trying to recover Jisr al-Shughour, and a major offensive to remove rebel forces from the Ghouta area adjacent to Damascus is widely anticipated. …
…The outcome of the battles for Jisr al-Shughur and the Qalamoun region will provide a clear indication of the regime’s military situation in areas of high strategic value. Elsewhere, however, with a few exceptions, the military effectiveness of the regime has been reduced to such a degree that an assertion of territorial control is unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Even within what might be regarded as the regime’s strategic core, and despite its monopoly on air power, it is at risk. It may lose control over the Hama air base, as well as land routes to Aleppo from the south.
These risks may yet be mitigated by a variety of factors. Conflict has been reported between Islamic State fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra amid the pressure of the Qalamoun offensive. The external backers of the various rebel forces do not share a single vision of the ultimate objectives of the struggle to remove Assad. The Saudis may yet become bogged down in their campaign in Yemen. Iran and Russia have strategic interests invested in the Assad regime (though not in Assad personally) that they will not readily relinquish.
Weighing against those factors, however, are the challenges and painful choices faced by the Syrian regime. It is increasingly difficulty for the regime to raise and sustain additional regular military forces. The regime appears increasingly dependent on inputs from Hezbollah to boost its military capability (among the reasons for losing Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour may have been the absence of such support). It is anxiously awaiting promised financial support from Iran. There have also been indications of friction within the upper echelons of the regime. …
… At the strategic level, the regime is being forced to choose between a politically-driven desire to maintain a military presence, however vulnerable, across most of the country, or withdrawing its forces to concentrate on the defence of the regime’s centre of gravity: Damascus and its surrounds, and access routes through Homs to the Mediterranean seaboard and adjacent mountains which comprise the historic Alawite heartland.
Whatever the military case may be for consolidating defensively around Damascus and a predominantly Alawite enclave, it is a strategy which entails enormous risk. It would signal to the regime’s support base (and to the rebels and their backers) that there is blood in the water. In contrast to the experience since 2011, the Syrian battle space would no longer be shaped by the regime. The regime would be on the defensive, and would have to find ways to sustain its supporters’ will to fight rather than flee. The psychological impact of terrorist actions that until now have been fairly readily absorbed by the population in Damascus would probably be enhanced.
For the first time on a large scale in this conflict, Syrians would witness atrocities against the Alawite inhabitants of mixed villages in the north and west that were no longer protected. In predominantly Alawite and Christian mountain villages, and coastal towns largely untouched by the war to date such as Tartous, the inflow of Alawite and other minorities fleeing the conflict and jihadist advances would likely damage morale.
As a recent program on al-Jazeera Arabic highlighted, there is a strong possibility that historical as well as more recent grievances against the Alawites will be given concrete expression in the most horrendous ways as the regime weakens. A substantial number of Syrians, unable to vent their anger on Assad personally for the hardships they suffered under his father and since 2011, will want Alawites to share the fate of the regime. …
Considering the potential effects of a regime lose, Bowker raises the issue of contingency planning regarding the mass flight of Alawites that would most certainly ensue:
With the Assad regime now more vulnerable in its fight against rebel groups, there is a strong case for the preparation of contingency plans to deal with a new and even greater humanitarian disaster that may unfold in and around Syria.
The potential for a genocide of the Alawites cannot be discounted. But the more likely impending threat is that of a sudden and massive population movement, especially from the western seaboard of the country into Lebanon. As noted in my previous piece (Assad’s Regime is Brittle, and it May Fall Fast), fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and social media campaigns, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948.
Any substantial outflow of the Alawite community (whose total number is uncertain, but if estimated to comprise 10% of the Syrian population, could be up to 2 million people) would almost certainly risk overwhelming the institutions and confessional balance of the Lebanese state.
Given the recent weakening of the momentum of the Syrian regime in its military contest with the rebel forces, and the historical precedents (Palestine in 1948 and more recently the Yazidis and Kurds of Iraq), the international community should prepare for the worst.
If the Syrian regime is seen to be collapsing, attempts by the Alawites to flee will be all but unstoppable. And for the vast majority of the refugees, particularly the Alawites and other minorities, there will be little prospect of returning to Syria. The consequences are grave. Should there be such an outflow, its legacy will reverberate around the region for decades at humanitarian, political and strategic levels.
The Lebanese Government is struggling to cope with the present burden of around 1.2 million Syrian ‘persons of concern’ (to use the UN High Commission for Refugees terminology). It is anxious to prevent an additional inflow further distorting the confessional political balance of the country in general and exacerbating the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in northern Lebanon in particular. It will be keen for a further wave of refugees to be protected or absorbed elsewhere. …
…The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimize the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimizing Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behavior and those of the Assad regime.
UN agencies and NGOs will also need to negotiate directly with rebel groups to obtain security assurances for Alawites. The work of building strategies and approaches for negotiating such arrangements, and identifying the key individuals and other factors likely to shape the outcome of such efforts, needs to begin now. …
Yazidi Crisis and the Enslavement Project
Middle East Eye speaks with Zainab Bangura, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, about the latest IS crimes
A United Nations unit of sex crime investigators has probed the world’s war zones for evidence of forced marriages, slavery and mass rape since 2009. According to its head, Zainab Bangura, the Islamic State (IS) group has taken atrocities to a whole new level.
Bangura has just returned from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where she gathered data on IS sex crimes, including those against captured Yazidi women. She spoke with Middle East Eye about her trip, and how she plans to counter the group.
MEE: What did you learn on your IS fact-finder?
Bangura: During my recent five-country Middle East visit, I met officials, frontline workers and survivors. My focus was IS’s war on women, including from Yazidi, Christian and Turkmen Shia minorities.
After attacking a village, IS splits women from men and executes boys and men aged 14 and over. The women and mothers are separated; girls are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. The youngest, and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch higher prices and are sent to Raqqa, the IS stronghold.
There is a hierarchy: sheikhs get first choice, then emirs, then fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl, when she goes back to market. At slave auctions, buyers haggle fiercely, driving down prices by disparaging girls as flat-chested or unattractive.
We heard about one girl who was traded 22 times, and another, who had escaped, told us that the sheikh who had captured her wrote his name on the back of her hand to show that she was his ‘property’.
Our research will feed into the annual UN report on conflict-related sexual violence and advocacy work.
MEE: Are they organised or ad hoc?
Bangura: IS is organised, coordinated and operates on a widespread and systematic basis to commit a staggering array of atrocities. They are institutionalising sexual violence; the brutalisation of women and girls is central to their ideology. They use sexual violence as a “tactic of terrorism” to advance key strategic priorities, such as recruitment, fundraising, to enforce discipline and order – through the punishment of dissenters or family members – and to advance their radical ideology.
They commit rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and other acts of extreme brutality. We heard one case of a 20-year-old girl who was burned alive because she refused to perform an extreme sex act. We learned of many other sadistic sexual acts. We struggled to understand the mentality of people who commit such crimes.
The number of foreign fighters involved remains a problem for us. In other conflicts, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, we can deal with fighters from five or six countries. For IS, it’s tens of thousands of fighters from 100 nationalities. In some attacks, there are more foreigners than Iraqis and Syrians.
MEE: Are all IS women enslaved?
Bangura: Most women get enslaved when their villages are attacked. We were also informed of parents who had given away their daughters to IS, particularly in Mosul. To understand this, we must examine the concept of jihad al-nikah, or sexual jihad – whereby women’s bodies are used as part of supporting the IS campaign. There are tens of thousands of men who expect that they will “get” women to “marry”. A woman’s contribution is to marry them and cater for them in many ways, including sexually. IS men may have a wife, as well as several slaves. We heard few stories of wives who helped the slaves to escape.
MEE: How do they escape?
Bangura: Some are released when a ransom is paid. When parents or community leaders are informed about the whereabouts of the women and girls, they would raise money – as much as $5,000 – and use an intermediary to “buy” the girls back.
Yazidi communities have suffered discrimination for a long time and have strong social networks. It is a closed and conservative community and recent events have been a real shock to them. But they show resilience and impressive coping mechanisms, including a willingness to welcome girls back.
Of course, not everyone escapes. When IS discovered girls used their headscarves to hang themselves, they forced them to remove them. I learned of three girls who tried to commit suicide by drinking rat poison, which had been left in a room. They started vomiting and were rushed to hospital and washed out. When they came back, they were brutally attacked.
MEE: You met escapees in Iraq’s Kurdish zone. Do they get the support they need?
Bangura: They do get support from their families, communities and the government, but the needs are huge. I met one woman who was in shock – most of her family had either been taken or killed. She was looking after her four-year-old son and trying to track down her 15-year-old daughter, who was taken by IS. She was so traumatised that she insisted her husband was missing, although he was dead.
Women like her need qualified medical and psycho-social support that is not readily available. Kurdish officials told me they are struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. They are worried about an extra 500,000 people fleeing from Mosul when Iraqi forces try to recapture the city later this year. For its part, the UN is supporting and sheltering the affected population, but everyone agrees that assistance needs to be scaled up.
It was painful for me. The countries I have worked on include Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and Central African Republic; I never saw anything like this. I cannot understand such inhumanity. I was sick, I couldn’t understand.
MEE: Besides the US-led military campaign, what can the UN do to tackle a militia that cares little for international legitimacy?
Bangura: In addition to the military intervention and the sanctions tools that we have, we need first to tackle their access to communication means including social media that they use to terrorise communities and the whole world and attract new recruits. Information is its oxygen – we must suffocate them. Their tactic is to destroy individuals, communities, laws and society and build a medieval social order. We also need to use economic divestments to halt IS sources of income and supply lines. We must also explain the scope of the atrocities being committed, and look at accountability, which is difficult in the context of more than 40,000 fighters from more than 100 countries. We need to look at jurisdiction – does it fall under Iraq? Syria? We cannot only react emotionally, we must understand their tactics and defeat them.
The UN official interviewed above also spoke to Canada’s The Star:
… And now Zainab Bangura is calling for a global flexing of humanitarian muscle to restore hope to these shattered young women.
“We need a humanitarian surge. It can’t be just Canada, it can’t be just Europe — everyone has a role to play in attending to the sheer scope to the damage,” Bangura told The Star in an interview Thursday.
“There are 40,000 men from more than 100 different countries inside the Islamic State using brutal sexual violence as a strategic tactic to terrorize. We need all 100 countries involved, helping to deal with the aftermath.”
In Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and finally northern Iraq, Bangura sat with escapees from enslavement. Some Christian, others Turkmen Shia. But mostly Yazidis — worshippers of a Mesopotamian faith that claims direct lineage to the Garden of Eden.
One 10-year-old Yazidi girl told her, “How can I be worth anything now?” Another described being traded 22 times as a sex slave before fleeing her last captor. Another described being among a group of 14 Yazidi women who consumed diluted rat poison in a collective attempt at suicide. Rescued by their captors, some were treated at hospital, and then beaten for disobedience. Seven managed to escape out a window and slip away to freedom.
Bangura met with the mother of 20-year-old Zuhour Kati, who was set on fire in January by an Islamic State fighter from Saudi Arabia for refusing to perform “extreme sexual acts.” Rescued by a brother with burns to nearly 90 per cent of her body, the young Yazidi woman died in hospital in the Turkish city of Malatya.
“Her mother told me, ‘My daughter is better off dead.’ ” Bangura tabled her findings at the UN two weeks ago, briefing Security Council members. She spoke separately to Arab League delegates. Then it was wheels-up for Europe — consultations with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, then to Sweden and now Germany, where she met Thursday with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Bangura, a native of Sierra Leone whose work has taken her to Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic, said nothing in her past travels remotely compares to the “systematic war on women” being waged in Iraq and Syria. …
A jihadi bride whose husband took a Yazidi girl as a slave has claimed sex with kidnapped women is never rape because it is an Islamic practice inspired by the Prophet himself.
On this new attempt to justify the enslavement project, see the previous Syria Comment post.
‘Has Anyone Here Been Raped by ISIS?’ – Daily Beast – Sherizaan Minwalla
The public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence must not outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy.
…Does the public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy? I don’t think so and there are indications that victims would agree.
In extreme cases, journalists have tricked victims into giving interviews. In its report “Escape from Hell,” Amnesty International tells the story of a woman who had requested medical assistance because she was having panic attacks. Instead of being taken into a doctor’s office, she was taken to a room full of journalists waiting to interview her.
In another reported case, a man who seems to have been a journalist but who claimed to be a doctor videotaped victims while telling them that he would not show their faces. The women reported to Amnesty International that the doctor advised them, “To cure our depression we should get out of the house and go for walks in the fields and sit in the sun.” …