Study: Government forces responsible for majority of rapes in Syria

Rape has played a devastating role in Syria's two-year-long civil war, but data about how prevalent the practice is in the murky conflict have been hard to come by. In one of the most ambitious efforts yet to nail down statistics, a study released Wednesday indicates that Syrian government forces have committed most acts of sexual violence.

Women Under Siege, along with Columbia University epidemiologists, the Syrian-American Medical Society, and Syrian activists and journalists, has spent the past year documenting and mapping incidences of sexual violence in the war-ravaged country. And while the group acknowledges that the data-- derived largely from media and human rights reports -- is incomplete and unverified, the numbers do paint an interesting picture of who is behind acts of sexual violence in the country, and how often they're occurring.

One of the report's most compelling findings is just how many of the cases of sexual violence on record have allegedly been committed by government forces:

According to the study, government forces have carried out 56 percent of sexual attacks against women. But if you include pro-regime shabiha (plain-clothed militia) perpetrators, the number is closer to 80 percent. When it comes to men (who were the victims in 20 percent of the cases tracked by Women Under Siege), the figures are even more staggering. 90 percent of the reported sexualized violence against men was committed by government forces, possibly due to the fact that these tend to occur in detention facilities. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army, has only carried out 1 percent of the documented sexual attacks.

FP caught up with Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe to delve deeper into the story behind these figures. Here's what she had to say:

Our number of reports has nearly doubled since we last put out our stats in July, yet the stats have remained remarkably consistent. Our lead Columbia epidemiologist thinks that indicates we are potentially on the right track. But again, the key caution is always that we are only getting a portion of what's potentially out there.

Wolfe acknowledges that rape is being committed on all sides of the conflict, but stresses the importance of looking at "why so much of the information coming out of Syria indicates that the majority is being enacted by government perpetrators." According to Wolfe, there are a number of explanations for this finding.

While the Syrian opposition has been diligently documenting atrocities and reporting these to international actors, the Syrian government has restricted journalists' access to information on sexual violence. "Much of the rape appears to be occurring in government detention centers, at checkpoints, and during army raids on towns," she told FP. "Whatever less structured [rape] carried out by opposition forces may be underreported."

There's another potential explanation, Wolfe adds: "It is entirely possible that government forces are actually carrying out the majority of the sexualized violence." Past studies of sexual violence in conflict show that state forces are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence -- a pattern that might just be recurring in Syria.

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The Taliban have been great for falcons

There haven't been many feel-good stories coming out of the tribal regions of Pakistan, which for several years now have served as the front line in the American-led fight against the Taliban and the remnants of al Qaeda. The Pakistani army has launched several offensives to dislodge militant groups, the CIA has periodically carried out drone strikes in the area, and since 2008 at least 163,000 families -- the actual number is likely much higher -- have fled the violence. But all of this violence and unrest has resulted in an unlikely beneficiary: the local falcon population.

Pakistan's falcons are thriving, according to an Inter Press Service report. The violence, it seems, has made it too dangerous for hunters and poachers to operate in the area, freeing falcons of their main threat. In 2005, when the birds were labeled an endangered species, there were only 2,000 falcons in the tribal region; by 2008 the population had swelled to 8,000.

Falcons are prized birds in the Arab world, where they are used for hunting, and a prime Pakistani falcon can fetch as much as $100,000. With money like that at stake, it is a testament to the intensity of the violence that hunters and poachers have been largely flushed from the area.

The bitter irony of a brutal civil war creating significant environmental benefits is not something that has environmentalists looking to Pakistan as a model for conservation strategies. Still, the falcons are probably happy.