Assad’s female fighters: Progress or propaganda?
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Close to 800 women swell the ranks of the Syrian army. This elite commando unit was created to “promote the role of Syrian women”, according to Damascus authorities. But is it just a PR move on the part of President Bashar Assad’s Baath Party?
The young woman looks out from behind a massive B-10 recoilless Russian rifle, her dark eyes shining with ferocity and determination. It’s clear she isn’t planning on missing her target.
“A sniper’s gun can take out one person but with my B10, I can kill everyone in a house,” Zainab bragged to an AFP journalist. The 21-year-old is part of the first brigade of female commandos in the loyalist Syrian Republican Guard.
Created close to two years ago, this elite brigade includes 800 female soldiers who fight along the eastern and southeastern borders of Damascus.
The brigade is widely publicised with a poster campaign in regime-controlled towns, and women enlist on a voluntary basis. They then spend several months training at a military academy before being dispatched to fill essential roles along the front (including as snipers and tank operators).
"The training includes understanding how to shoot with a Kalashnikov and a BKC machine gun, how to handle grenades, how to carry out raids, and how to launch an attack on barricades put up by the opposing side as well as how to maintain our own. The women also take classes in military strategy and tactics,” said one commander, Jahjah, a female soldier who retired from the Syrian army to become an instructor for the female brigades.
But these freshly trained commandos aren’t the first women to take up arms to defend the regime. In 2013, almost 450 women, aged 18-50, joined the national defence forces, militias made up of armed civilians. These pro-regime civilian fighters banded together to defend their neighbourhoods against rebel incursions.
Women as weapons of propaganda
Opening up the army to female recruits was a "decision made by President Bashar al-Assad, who wants to raise the profile of Syrian women and show they are capable of succeeding in all sectors", one leader of the female commandos in Damascus told AFP.
Interestingly, photos of these female fighters flooded news agencies at the end of last month – the exact moment that Assad told the American television station CBS (on March 27) that he was open to dialogue with the United States .
Was this timing by chance? It wouldn’t be the first time that Assad has used women as a propaganda tool to promote his politics in the eyes of the international community. In January 2013, just as Washington lifted its ban on female soldiers serving in combat roles, Assad paraded his so-called “lionesses” in front of cameras through the streets of the city Homs. The location was also significiant: Homs is the birthplace of Syria’s civilian militias, before they became widespread across Syria.
"Bashar al-Assad wants to sell himself as a model of modernity, opposed to the obscurantism of jihadist groups such as Daesh (the Islamic State organisation) or the Al-Nusra Front. The war in Syria is a face-off between two societal structures and Assad is showing that, in his system, women have an important role, even in the defence forces,” explains Fabrice Balanche, an expert on Syria and the director of Gremmo, a research group on the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Besides the propaganda utility of these women, Balanche says it’s also possible that the Syrian Army – which he estimates is made up of 150,000 soldiers – needs the extra woman-power to make up for the extensive losses suffered in the four-year conflict. More than 215,000 people are thought to have died in the civil war, according to the UN.
"Between the dead, the wounded and the deserters, the army has called up all of its Alawite reserves. All of the men between 20 and 40 years old in the coastal regions have already been enlisted in the army and the army has even started recruiting Shiites, which shows that there is a real need,” the researcher explained.
Women’s emancipation: A Baath strategy
However, women were actually bearing arms even before Syria was torn apart by a bloody civil war.
"There have always been women in the Syrian army, there were even female commando parachutists under Hafez al-Assad," says Balanche. In the 1970s, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, opened the so-called "moaskar" military training camps, which were obligatory for all young Syrians, men and women alike.
Assad’s secular Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963, has frequently bragged about its drive to emancipate Syrian women, showing off their successes as a symbol of the party’s modernity.
The party has included women in the country’s development process, made school both obligatory and free for girls, and also allowed women to fill important posts in the government, army and police. In 2000, about 20 women were elected to the Baath central committee and Assad’s éminence grise is Bouthaina Chaabane, one of the most influential women in Syria.
However, the emancipation process is still incomplete and discrimination widespread.
"While the status of women has improved under the Baath Party… many laws still perpetuate discrimination," wrote Zakaria Taha, a researcher associated with the French national scientific research centre (CNRS) in her thesis. Women cannot, for example, transmit their Syrian nationality to their children. Chillingly, honour killings of women are not considered serious crimes but mere misdemeanours.
But the party has always known how to spin itself. For Taha, the call to liberate women, as well as the fight against political Islam, is used strategically by the Baath Party, which presents itself as a rampart against Islamists.
"This allows them to be seen from the outside as a secular regime that is both respectful of women’s rights and actively involved in the fight against the Islamist threat. It also legitimises the party in the eyes of Western countries in its fight against Islamist movements as well as giving the party more power to silence the opposition,” Taha wrote.