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Syria: The Hidden War on Women

Syrian refugee women and girls are suffering harassment, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse in exile in Lebanon and Jordan, and that abuse is increasing.

By Sharron Ward

Some have been living in refugee camps like Zaatari in Jordan for over 4 years. But the biggest concentration of refugees lives outside the formal camps. Over 80% per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in urban areas. And it is these refugees who are the most vulnerable.

Last November, the Jordanian Ministry of Health, having spent millions on health care, stopped funding free medical aid to Syrian refugees. Now Syrians must fund it themselves or look to humanitarian aid agencies for help. But it is illegal for Syrian refugees to work in Lebanon and Jordan.

There are no formal camps in Lebanon, and many lone Syrian refugee women I met in the Bekaa valley have to live in rented apartments or small informal tent settlements. There are thousands of Syrian refugee women whose husbands were either killed fighting in Syria or are simply missing – their fate unknown.

These women are increasingly falling prey to sexual harassment, exploitation and the expectation of trading sex in return for aid. Unscrupulous landlords and local charity organisations abuse their power and exploit the vulnerable position of these women who can’t pay their rent or have to rely on aid agencies for help.

‘Samar’ is one such woman I met. If the struggle of trying to survive as a single women with five young children – all who were sick with asthma and themselves traumatised by living under siege and years of bombardments from Assad’s army – wasn’t enough, Samar also has to contend with local charities, run by men who expect her to trade sex for aid in order to get help.

Mona, a widowed woman I met in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon recalls a similar experience.

“The rent was very expensive around $400USD a month. I could not afford the rent, so I asked the landlord for a reduction. He refused, saying ‘I told you – you shine the light on me and I will shine the light on you. But you refused.’

“I didn’t know what he meant,” says Mona. Later she realised he was expecting sex in return for rent.

Samar is not only traumatised by unspeakable horrors during the Syrian war – she saw massacres in which hundreds of people were killed – she also survived a 7-month long siege.

“We would go into bombed out houses, wash the dirt off the rice and eat it,” she explained.

But she too suffers from what she calls “the cruel treatment of women by Syrian society.” She explains that from the age of 8 or 9-years-old, Syrian girls from conservative families starting to reach puberty are kept at home in order to “protect” them from the advances of men.

This restricts their ability to get an education, and as Samar says, there is no way to provide an income now when she needs it the most. Her husband is missing inside Syria, and she struggles to be the breadwinner.

“I’m really suffering in Lebanon, I can’t provide for my children, to provide for all their needs because I didn’t finish my education.”

Syrian refugees are running out of money, and so incidents of early marriage, which has always been traditional in Syria amongst conservative families, are rising rapidly. Marrying off Syrian girls under the age of 18 years old is a way some families see of easing the economic burden.

‘Farah’, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee living outside the camps in Jordan was under great pressure from her family to marry early. She was officially engaged three times and informally several times – the first at the age of 12 years old. Each time she refused, she was beaten by her family. First by her father, and then by her brother, who “became his deputy.” The beatings she endured were severe.

Syrian men in exile too are feeling the strain. Unable to work in Jordan and Lebanon, and unable to cope with the humiliating change in their economic circumstances, men are lashing out at their wives more than ever.

‘Amal’ in Jordan told me of the severe psychological stress she endured from her husband.

“He hit me all over my body. He said it was because of our situation in Jordan, that he couldn’t provide for us, he couldn’t work.”

Bravely, Amal speaks out as domestic violence and abuse is stigmatised in Syrian culture. As a result, the true scale of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation remains hidden.

Much needed relief is provided by the United Nations Population Fund which is supporting local government and non-government organisations to empower and counsel both Syrian women and men. But the UN says its humanitarian agencies, heaving under the strain of catering for refugees in the Middle East, is on the brink of bankruptcy.

Dr Shible Sabhani, the UNFPA Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Jordan says that despite gender based violence reaching epidemic proportions in the Middle East, donor fatigue has meant that the “sustainability of our ability to help these vulnerable Syrian women is greatly at risk.”

For thousands of Syrian women in exile in the Middle East, the hidden war on women continues.

Edited by Andy Kemp
Filmed, directed and produced by Sharron Ward

Syria: The Hidden War is a Katalyst Productions film for Channel 4 News




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Syria and the drumbeat of world war – To read

Bill Van Auken

With Russia having completed its first week of airstrikes in Syria, firing some 26 cruise missiles from warships deployed over 900 miles away in the Caspian Sea, an escalating drumbeat of warnings and threats of a far more dangerous conflict and even world war has come to dominate discussions within ruling circles in both the US and Europe.

French President François Hollande, who has ordered French warplanes to bomb Syria, warned European lawmakers Wednesday that the events in that country could spiral into a “total war” from which Europe itself would not be “sheltered.”

Seizing on alleged incidents involving Russian warplanes straying into Turkish airspace, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, “An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” implicitly invoking Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits members of the US-led military alliance to an armed response against an attack on Turkey or any other member state.

The Turkish government, which has been one of the primary sources of support for Islamist militias such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front that have ravaged Syria, routinely violates the airspace of its own neighbors, carrying out bombing raids against Kurdish camps in Iraq and shooting down Syrian planes over Syrian territory.

Top NATO officials have also weighed in with bellicose denunciations of Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg charged that the alleged Russian incursion into Turkish airspace “does not look like an accident.” He continued, warning, “Incidents, accidents, may create dangerous situations. And therefore it is also important to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, who commands NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, accused Russia of building an “arc of steel” from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea. This deliberate paraphrasing of Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech turns the real relationship of forces inside out, obscuring the relentless encirclement of Russia by Washington and the NATO alliance in the wake of the Soviet Union’s liquidation 25 years ago.

Describing Russia as the “most dangerous threat” facing NATO, Admiral Ferguson called for an increasingly aggressive NATO posture toward Moscow, recommending the honing of the alliance’s “war fighting skills” and the deployment of military forces “on call for real world operations.”

Former high-level US officials, whose views undoubtedly reflect the thinking within powerful sections of the American ruling establishment and its vast military and intelligence complex, have also weighed in with calls for confrontation with Russia.

In a column published by the Financial Times, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration and a longtime US imperialist strategist, wrote that Russian attacks on CIA-backed Islamist militias “should prompt US retaliation.” Like others in Washington, he avoided mentioning that the most prominent of these militias is Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.

Brzezinski advised that “Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland” and “could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.” Presumably, he inserted the quotation marks around “disarmed” to signal that he was employing a euphemism for “militarily obliterated.”

Similarly, Ivo Daalder, who was Obama’s ambassador to NATO until mid-2013, told Politico: “If we want to take out their military forces there, we can probably do it at relatively little or no cost to ourselves. The question is what will be Putin’s response. I think if you sit in the Situation Room you have to play this one out.”

Meanwhile, Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special envoy on a Syrian transition, compared Putin’s actions to those of Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which brought the world to the precipice of nuclear war. “Like his predecessor over 50 years ago, he [Putin] senses weakness on the part of a US president. Like his predecessor, he risks discovering that trifling with the United States is not a healthy pursuit. But such a risk entails dangers for all concerned.”

Drawing out the ominous implications of these discussions, Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, compared the Syrian conflict with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. He wrote: “A similar proxy war is under way in Syria today—with both the Russian and US air forces bombing targets in the country, and foreign fighters pouring in.”

He continued: “The countries that were backing opposite sides in Spain in the 1930s were fighting each other directly by the 1940s. The risk of the Syrian conflict leading to a direct clash between the Iranians and the Saudis, or even the Russians and the Americans, cannot be discounted.”

This danger exists because Russia’s intervention—launched in defense of the interests of the Russian state and the ruling class of oligarchs who represent Russia’s energy conglomerates—has cut across US plans to effect regime-change in Syria and redraw the map of the Middle East that date back decades.

The proposal to bring about regime-change in Syria by backing proxy forces on the ground was advanced two decades ago in a document entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” drafted for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a study group that included Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. All three were later to gain high-level positions in the Bush administration, participating in the conspiracy to launch the US war of aggression against Iraq.

A recently released classified document obtained by WikiLeaks establishes that active US planning for regime-change predated the outbreak of the Syrian civil war by at least five years. The secret report from the head of the US Embassy in Damascus outlined “vulnerabilities” of the Syrian government that Washington could exploit. At the top of the list were fomenting “Sunni fears of Iranian influence” to cause sectarian conflict and taking advantage of “the presence of transiting Islamist extremists.”

Given that the document was written in 2006, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian carnage caused by the US invasion and Washington’s divide-and-rule tactics, these proposals were made with full awareness that they would provoke a bloodbath. Nearly a decade later, the bitter fruits of this policy include the deaths of some 300,000 Syrians, with another 4 million driven from the country and 7 million more internally displaced.

While cynically exploiting the suffering of the Syrian people to justify an escalation of US militarism, Washington is not about to let Russia derail its drive to impose its hegemony over the oil-rich Middle East and the entire planet.

The path to war with Russia is by no means accidental. From the outset, the US intervention to topple the regime in Damascus was aimed at weakening the principal allies of the Syrian government—Iran and Russia—in preparation for a direct assault on both countries.

More and more directly each day, the eruption of American militarism, rooted in the historic crisis of American and world capitalism, confronts humanity with the specter of a nuclear Third World War.

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Israel strikes near the Syrian capital: Syrian TV

(Reuters) – Syrian state television said on Sunday that Israeli jets had bombed areas near Damascus international airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon.

An Israeli army spokesman said he would not comment on the “foreign reports”.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the three-year conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their long-time foe Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

“The Israeli enemy committed aggression against Syria by targeting two safe areas in Damascus province, in all of Dimas and near the Damascus International Airport,” state television said, adding that there were no casualties.

Residents in Damascus said they heard loud explosions and opposition activists posted photos online of jet streams in the evening sky and fiery explosions. Syria’s army general command said on state television that there were “material losses in some facilities.” It said the strike benefited al Qaeda.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the strikes were a “flagrant attack on Syria”, while the official news agency in Lebanon said Israeli jets breached its airspace on Sunday.

A resident in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, close to Dimas, said the agricultural airport in Dimas was hit.

Dimas is in a mountainous area to the northwest of the capital which is under government control and close to several military installations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict through a network of sources on both sides, said that 10 explosions were heard near Dimas. It said that one missile hit a warehouse for imports and exports at the Damascus international airport.

Syrian state media reported in May 2013 that Israeli aircraft struck in three places including the Dimas airport. At the time, Western and Israeli officials said it was a strike on Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah.

Syria’s war started with a pro-democracy movement which grew into an armed uprising and has inflamed regional confrontations. Some 200,000 people have died, the United Nations says.

A U.S.-led coalition is also bombing Syria from the skies but targeting the Islamic State militant group, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest foes.

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إنها دمشق

مظفر النواب
شقيقة بغداد اللدودة، ومصيدة بيروت، حسد القاهرة، وحلم عمان، ضمير مكة، غيرة قرطبة، مقلة القدس، مغناج المدن وعكاز تاريخ لخليفة هرم.
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إنها دمشق، امرأة بسبعة مستحيلات، وخمسة أسماء وعشرة ألقاب، مثوى ألف ولي، ومدرسة عشرين نبياً، وفكرة خمسة عشر إلهاً خرافياً لحضارات شنقت نفسها على أبوابها.
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إنها دمشق الأقدم والأيتم، ملتقى الحلم ونهايته، بداية الفتح وقوافله، شرود القصيدة ومصيدة الشعراء.
من على شرفتها أطل هشام ليغازل غيمة أموية عابرة، (أنى تهطلي خيرك لي) بعد أن فرغ من إرواء غوطتها بالدم، ومنها طار صقر قريش حالماً، ليدفن تحت بلاطه في جبال البرينيه.
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إنها دمشق التي تحملت الجميع، متقاعسين وحالمين، صغار كسبة وثوريين، عابرين ومقيمين، مدمني عضها، مقلمي أظفارها وخائبين وملوثين، طهرانيين وشهوانيين…
رضعت حتى جف بردى، فسارعت بدمها، بشجرها وظلالها، ولما نفقت الغوطة، أسلمت قاسيونها (شامتها الأثيرة) يلعقونه، يتسلقونه، يطلون منه على جسدها، ويدعون كل السفلة ليأخذوا حصتهم من براءتها، حتى باتت هذه مهنة من يحبها ومن لا يقوى على ذلك. لكنها دمشق تعود فتية كلما شرق نقي عظامها.
إنها دمشق ايها العرب العاربة والمستعربة، قبلة سياحكم، ومحط مطيكم، تمنح لقب الشيخ لكل من لبس صندلا واعتمر دشداشة، ولا تعترف إلا بشيخها محي الدين بن عربي. هو من لم تتسع له الأرض، حضنته دمشق تحت ثديها وألبسته حياً من أحيائها، فغنى لها «كل ما لا يؤنث لا يعول عليه».
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إنها دمشق لا تعبأ باثنين: الجلادين والضحايا، تؤرشفهم وتعيدهم بعد لأي على شكل منمنمات تزين بها جدرانها أو أخباراً في صفحات كتبها، فيتململ ابن عساكر قليلاً يغسل يديه ويتوضأ لوجه الله ويشرع بتغطيس الريشة في المحبرة، لا ليكتب بل ليمرر الحبر على حروف دمشق المنجمة في كتابها. دمشق التي تتقن كل اللغات ولا أحد يفهم عليها إلا الله جل شأنه وملائكة عرشه.
دمر هولاكو بغداد وصار مسلما في دمشق. حرر صلاح الدين القدس وطاب موتاً في دمشق. قدم لها الحسين ابن علي ويوحنا المعمدان وجعفر البرمكي رؤوسهم كي ترضى دمشق. وما بين قبر زينب وقبر يزيد خمسة فراسخ ودفلى على طريقة دمشق. إنها دمشق لا تحب أحداً، ولا تعبأ بكارهيها، متغاوية ووقحة. تركت عشاقها خارجا بقسوة نادرة كي لا ينسفح كثير من دمهم، وتتفرغ للغرباء الذين ظنوا أنفسهم أسيادها ليستفيقوا فجأة وإذ بهم عالقون تحت أظافرها.
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لديها من الغبار ما يكفي لتقص أثر من سرقها فتحيله متذرذراً على جسدها.
لديها من العشاق ما يكفي حبر العالم، ومن الأزرق ما يكفي لتغرق القارات الخمس.
لديها من المآذن ما يكفي ليتنفس ملحدوها عبق الملائكة، ومن المداخن ما يكفي «لتشحير» وجه الكون.
ولديها من الوقت ما يكفي لترتب قبلة مع مذنب عابر، ومن الشهوة ما يدعو نحل الكون لرحيقها.
لديها من الصبر ما يكفي لتنتشي بهزة أرضية، ومن الأحذية و«الشحاحيط» المعلقة في سوق الحميدية ما يكفي للاحتفال بخمسين دكتاتوراً.
لديها من الحبال ما يكفي لنشر الغسيل الوسخ للعالم أجمع، ومن الشرفات ما يكفي سكان آسيا ليحتسوا قهوتهم ويدخنوا سجائرهم على مهل.
لديها من القبل ما يكفي كل حرمان المجذومين، ومن الصراخ ما يكفي ضحايا نكازاكي وهيروشيما.
لديها من النهايات ما يكفي ثمانين ألف رواية، ومن الأجنة ما يكفي لتشغيل الحروب القادمة.
لديها شعراء بعدد شرطة السير، وقصائد بعدد مخالفات التموين، ونساء بكل ألوان الطيف وما فوق وتحت البنفسجي والأحمر.
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لا فضول لدمشق، لا تريد أن تعرف ولا أن تسرع الخطى. ثابتة على هيئة لغز، الكل يلهث، يرمح، يسبح، وهي تنتظرهم هناك إلى حيث سيصلون.
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دمشق هي العاصمة الوحيدة في العالم التي لا تقبل القسمة على اثنين. في أرقى أحيائها تسمع وجع «الطبالة»، وفي ظلمة «حجرها الأسود» يتسلق كشاشو الحمام كتف قاسيون ليصطادوا حمامة شاردة من «المهاجرين».
دمشق لا تقسم إلى محورين. فليست كبيروت غربية وشرقية، ولا كما القاهرة أهلي وزملكاوي ولا كما باريس ديغول وفيشي، ولا هي مثل لندن شرق وغرب نهر التايمز، ولا كمدن الخليج العربي مواطنين ووافدين، ولن تكون كعمان فدائيين وأردنيين، ولا كبغداد منطقة خضراء واخرى بلون الدم…
دمشق مكان واحد، فإذا طرقت باب توما ستنفتح نافذة لك من باب الجابية، وإذا أقفل باب مصلى فلديك مفاتيح باب السريجة، وإن أضعت طريق الجامع الأموي، فستدلك عليه «كنيسة السيدة».
لا تتعب نفسك مع دمشق ولا تحتار، فهي تسخر من كل من يدعي أنه يحميها ومن يهدد بترويضها، فتود أن تعانقها أو تهرب منها، تلتقط لها صورة أو تحمضها كلها، تود أن تدخلها فاتحاً أو سائحاً، مدافعا أو ضحية، ماحياً أو متذكراً كل شيء دفعة واحدة.
فتخرج سيجارة «حمرا» طويلة تشعلها بخمسة أعواد كبريت ماركة «الفرس»، وتقول جملة واحدة للجميع: إنها دمشق.

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