Women In Syria Are Traded For Weapons, Food And Rent

The sale and trade of women in Syria is not a wanton and senseless consequence of war. It is a consequence of a war economy in which nearly all warring parties and even civilians use women to secure profit, weapons, access or leverage in negotiations.

At a camp near Raqqa for internally displaced Syrians
At a camp near Raqqa for internally displaced Syrians
Shawn Carrié Rami Zayat Alessandria Masi

BEIRUT — Syria is flush with war profiteers taking advantage of the most devastating aspects of the conflict, from the black-market trade of burial plots to the monopoly on dairy in besieged areas. The crumbling economy has made survival in Syria dependent on a — usually extortionate — system of transactions and trades. Perhaps the most brutal consequence of this has been the use of women as a form of currency.

Women are kidnapped for ransom, sold into marriage and, in some cases, traded for weapons and goods and used as negotiation leverage. Syria is not the first conflict in which women have been used as tools to further political, military or financial goals by the warring factions. But in Syria women have become an instrumental part of a war economy that is largely built on violence against them, experts say.

"Using women as currency is common when someone is in an urgent need of something but they can't possibly afford it," Eman Obeid, a gender-based violence specialist for the Danish Refugee Council, told Syria Deeply.

Even the civilian echelons of Syrian society have used women as a form of currency, where they can be exchanged for protection, permission to cross a border or front line or even the cost of rent.

"Sometimes this is being used to extract power from someone stronger… and sometimes it's the other way around, someone with more power demands a woman when money is not available," Obeid said.

Kidnap for ransom

The kidnapping and trade of women for ransom payments has been a source of significant income for warring parties in Syria. The so-called Islamic State, for example, has collected an estimated $40 million in ransom payments from the families of abducted women and girls in Iraq and Syria.

One of the most notorious, albeit lucrative kidnappings has been that of the hundreds of Assyrian Christians — many of whom were women — taken from Hassakeh province in February 2015. ISIS demanded an $18 million ransom payment, but eventually settled for less, according to the Associated Press.

"When we talk about the political economy of terrorism, and the suppression of terrorist financing, we talk about the oil trade or antiquities market. But we don't talk about sexual violence," Letitia Anderson, the advocacy and women's rights specialist with U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, told Syria Deeply.

"The amount of revenue generated from trafficking women, extorting their families, forcing ransoms, forcibly marrying women and girls is not negligible," she said.

Pro-government militias have also been accused of kidnapping women and girls for ransom. The practice was particularly prominent and on the rise in Damascus in 2016, according to reports published on the activist-run Syria Untold and The Syrian Observer media outlets. Pro-government militias largely targeted women from wealthy families or the daughters of prominent figures "because their parents are able and willing to pay large sums of money to free their daughters quickly due to fear of rape and scandal," Rami Zineddin, a resident of Damascus, told Syria Untold last summer, adding that the average amount to free a woman who was kidnapped was roughly 5 million Syrian pounds ($9,709).

The Syrian government denounced these accusations, claiming victims were fabricating their own kidnappings to extort their families for money.

I changed my clothes and ISIS-ed up.

Putting a price tag on women has also significantly decreased their freedom of movement within the country to cross Syria's borders — with levels of risk that vary from town to town.

Obeid had to make several different transformations to her appearance during the journey from her hometown in Deir Ezzor to Turkey. She first arrived in a "cool" district, where she was able to blend in easily, but she had to move on to more traditional districts, where she wore a veil and a black dress. When she got closer to the Euphrates River, she said she dressed like a farmer, keeping her black dress with her. She paid a "fixer" 100,000 Syrian pounds ($194) to arrange a boat to cross the Euphrates into ISIS-held territory.

"While in water, I changed my clothes and ISIS-ed up," she said. "Crossing the ISIS checkpoint is repulsive. You have to check all the three layers — what they call "Sharia" clothing, full face cover, black socks, black shoes and black gloves. Missing any part of it means your life or your soul is in danger. Once I was just cleaning my glasses. I had to take off one layer of the three off my face, and when I couldn't see clearly, one ISIS man ran to me and hit me with a rifle on my shoulder shouting, ‘Cover your face, woman!""

Obeid's mother and sister made similar journeys, but the women decided to split up before making the journey, so that both wouldn't be "compromised if something bad happened," Obeid said.

ISIS requires women crossing within their territory to be accompanied by a man, but they had also banned men under the age of 65 from leaving Deir Ezzor. This left Obeid's family with only their father as an option. He accompanied her mother, leaving her sister Yamama to make the crossing alone. ISIS arrested Yamama.

"They used my sister … and demand something to release her, arguing that she cannot leave without being accompanied by a man," Obeid said.

Obeid now works on the cases of many Syrian women who have had endured similarly brutal experiences while traveling both within the country and across its borders, some at the hands of other civilians. She recalled to Syria Deeply the case of a father who sold his 19-year-old daughter into a marriage with a 65-year-old Turkish man in exchange for his help crossing the border.

In a separate case, one Syrian woman could not afford the fee when she decided to flee. The smugglers agreed to accept a trade instead: They would rape her in exchange for allowing her to cross the border.

In the same way that women have been exchanged for money, they have also been traded for weapons, goods and services.

The trade of Syrian women has also spilled over to neighboring countries. "Many women spoke of being approached by their landlords for sexual relations or favors in return for rent ‘payment,"" Mohammed, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, told the International Rescue Committee in a report.

Eman discussed a similar case in Turkey, where a homeowner offered a Syrian widow one year's rent in exchange for marrying her daughter.

"It's like the price of a year rental is a young female," Obeid said.

Cover your face, woman!

A November 2016 report by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom found the Syrian government guilty of arresting women "in order to trade them with weapons of armed opposition groups," the report said. "The last months have witnessed unprecedented arrests, apparently for this purpose only."

In July 2015, the Syrian government arrested two women from the town of Dael in Daraa province, later releasing them in exchange for money and "20 pieces of weapons' delivered from rebels to government troops, according to the report. Similar incidents have also been recorded in the areas of Tafas and Atman, also in Daraa province, the report said.

A 2015 report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) provided more examples of women being detained by the Syrian government and traded for goods. The report mentions the case of Sahar who was arrested in 2012 for nine months in Sweida along with her 13-year-old son on ambiguous charges of "dealing with terrorists." She was released as part of an agreement between the Syrian government and an unspecified opposition faction. Under the terms of the agreement, Syrian rebels would deliver food to Syrian troops besieged in a prison in Deraa province in exchange for her release.

"The deal was (to release me) in exchange for food to be delivered to the Syrian government soldiers inside the prison," Sahar said in her testimony.

Authorities see those women as an additional investment.

Syrian women detained in government prisons have emerged as a key asset for the Syrian government in captive exchange deals with opposition factions. Just last week, Jaish Osoud al-Sharqiya, a Free Syrian army affiliate in southern Syria, released a Syrian pilot they had captured in mid-August in exchange for the release of a number of female detainees from government prisons.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), since March 2011 some 13,920 women and girls have been arbitrarily detained in Syria, and as of February 2017, at least 7,500 remained in detention. Of these detainees, around 6,000 are being held by pro-government forces.

"From our standpoint, the Syrian authorities see those women as an additional investment," SNHR wrote in their 2016 report on the situation of women in Syria. "They use these women in captive exchange deals with factions from the armed oppositions. They are trying to benefit from these detainees as much as possible."

Syrian rebel groups have also resorted to the detention of women to extract confessions from the Syrian government. According to EMHRN, since 2013 opposition groups have increasingly resorted to the detention of women to acquire bargaining power in negotiations with the Syrian government over the release of rebel fighters.

In 2016, opposition groups "used" women and girls in Hama province "in captive exchange deals with government forces," according to SNHR.

"As a result, Syrian women are being targeted in an indiscriminate manner by most parties to the conflict who use them to gain weight in their negotiations on hostage exchanges," EMHRN said in a report.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!