A trip to Syria last January piqued my interest in the ubiquitous Syrian death toll that accompanies most news items on the country. The overwhelming assumption about these casualty numbers is that they represent dead civilians killed by a brutal regime, but inside Syria I found widely conflicting opinions on who was doing the killing and who was dying.
In my February 2012 investigation I concluded that the UN total of 5,000 victims of violence in Syria included a more diverse universe than what was being portrayed in the media: civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and opposition gunmen; victims of deliberate violence by government forces and by opposition gunmen; “dead opposition fighters” whose attire do not distinguish them from regular civilians; and members of the Syrian security forces, both on and off duty.
When juxtaposed with the government’s list of around 2,000 dead Syrian soldiers and policemen, it appeared that there was some “parity” in the numbers of violent deaths on both sides. But that information would suggest that the Syrian army was responding in relative proportion to the threat posed, which is not the way we understand the conflict in Syria in the mass media.
The UN stopped counting casualties around that time because escalating hostilities made “verification” difficult. But a year on, it has reinstated its count – this time using seven lists and citing a figure of 59,648 – more than ten times its last number.
Yet this new count gives us no more insight into the nature of the Syrian conflict than the 5,000 number of a year ago. It doesn’t tell us who is killing and who is dying. And that information matters – the global political response to a genuine civil conflict would be different than to a genocide committed by a ruthless authority.
UN High Commissioner For Human Rights Navi Pillay does not attribute the nearly 60,000 deaths to the Syrian government, but neatly implies it by saying things like:
“The massive loss of life could have been avoided if the Syrian government had chosen to take a different path than one of ruthless suppression of what were initially peaceful and legitimate protests by unarmed civilians.”
This kind of complicity by influential officials to obfuscate details about the Syrian death toll continues unabashed. It is little wonder that the crisis gallops ahead today – the “solutions” offered have been based on false premises that have led directly to the weaponization of the conflict, and thus, to a staggeringly higher casualty count.
SOHR disputes the UN’s numbers
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) founder Rami Abdulrahman, whose casualty list is the one most widely quoted by the media, scoffs at the UN’s new numbers and believes they are inflated for “propaganda” purposes. Rami’s list has been used as a primary source in both UN counts, but his figures are on the lower end of the spectrum and he claims high accuracy for only reporting casualties with names or video footage.
“The UN is a political organization,” says Rami, who is amassing “evidence” of falsified data by some of the other casualty counters the UN used. During a lengthy meeting with him in Coventry, England in December, he provided me with anecdotal and video examples:
“Yesterday in Qahtaniyah, near al-Raqqa (northeast of Syria), I had a video of 21 people killed, but 19 names only. Other groups said 40 were killed – where are the 40? Tell them to provide me with only 21 names,” he demands, frustrated.
“Four days ago in Halfaya, the LCCs (Local Coordination Committees) said 200 were killed in an air strike on a bakery. I cannot confirm it was an airstrike and I now have the names of 43 people, 40 adult males and 3 women. The other groups say the majority were women and children! We have no evidence of this whatsoever,” insists Rami, “so why are they playing games with the lives of people?”
Between March 2011 and mid-January 2012, the SOHR has logged 47,605 deaths of which 33,279 are “civilians,” a number which includes non-combatants and nearly 9,000 rebels. Some smaller figures are also included in this count: 1,564 are defectors killed in clashes and 943 are unnamed people who feature on his video records, for example. The SOHR maintains a separate list for Syrian soldiers and security forces, which Rami says earns him the wrath of other opposition groups who don’t want to admit there are dead soldiers. There are 11,819 names on this list.
When asked about the high civilian count, he admits: “I have thousands of rebels in the civilian list. I put all the non-defectors in the civilian list.” Rami later says: “It isn’t easy to count rebels because nobody on the ground says ‘this is a rebel.’ Everybody hides it.”
So how does one gauge how many rebels are embedded in the “civilian” count? Rami’s casualty count for that day, December 27, 2012, may be a helpful guide:
- 3 defectors were killed in Reef Aleppo and Hama; one was a colonel.
Rami counts 148 violent deaths in Syria that day – 49 are rebels, 42 are soldiers, 3 are defectors, and the remaining 54 are, according to Rami, likely to be a mix of non-combatant civilians and unidentified rebels. In this count, around two-thirds of the deaths are armed men – an appreciatively different take on the perception of “civilian slaughter” in Syria created by the UN’s un-nuanced casualty numbers.
Peeling the onion further
When I ask UN spokesman Rupert Colville whether 11,000+ Syrian soldiers could be embedded in the UN’s casualty list, he replies: “It’s quite possible. And how many are in these statistics, we just don’t know.”
“The study makes absolutely no effort whatsoever to separate combatants and non-combatants,” explains Colville, adding that the motivation in compiling this list was “for indicative purposes; to gauge scale.”
Since the UN stopped it’s count last year because verification of deaths was getting harder, I asked if they were able to do those kind of checks this time around. “No,” admits Colville, “we can’t prove most of these people have died.”
Megan Price, lead author and statistician of the UN’s casualty analysis project, concurs but explains: “we were not asked to do verification of whether the casualties are real.”
Her firm, Benetech, a non-profit technology company experienced in casualty analysis in conflicts, drew its data from 7 combined lists of 147,349 reported casualties of violence in Syria. They discarded reports that did not include names, place and date of death, as well as duplicates, to arrive at almost 60,000 casualties.
So what’s the point of this UN casualty list if we don’t actually know the data is real and we aren’t even told if Syria’s victims are combatants or non-combatants – let alone who killed them?
Benetech’s data crunching actually does manage to give us a peephole into some casualty demographics that may be the most revealing “facts” we have in this conflict – depending of course on whether the data is real in the first place. Only 7.5% of the recorded dead are female, making this an overwhelmingly male casualty count. Furthermore, the largest segment of the 30% of victims whose ages are included in the records are between the ages of 20 and 30 – what might be classified as males of “military age.”
The combined demographic information could very well suggest that the violence in Syria is largely between armed men on either side and that areas dense with non-combatant civilians are not typically targeted, though some of that clearly occurs.
Alternatively, Colville suggests that the low female death toll may be due to civilians vacating areas of conflict, leaving younger men behind to protect property. This version of events, however, actually bolsters the Syrian regime’s claim that it does not target civilian populations and that it warns civilians to vacate areas before launching military operations against rebels, whether by air or by ground.
Conflict death toll controversy
Maintaining casualty counts during conflict is a tricky business. On one hand, it can help alert the international community to situations of violence, track the scale of the violence over time and act as an important baseline for investigation in the aftermath of conflict.
On the other hand, inaccurate death tolls in recent conflicts, as in the case of Iraq, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have made casualty counting a politically-charged business. While some death toll disputes are over methodology, the most frequent criticism is that data analysis and subsequent results can be self-serving, more focused on politics and fundraising ambitions than accuracy.
Benetech, for instance, receives funding from the US State Department, a vocal and active advocate for regime change in Syria. For Washington, jacked-up casualty numbers are as desirable in this conflict as they were anathema in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Although physically present in Iraq, the US and British governments were unable to provide estimates of the numbers of deaths unleashed by their own invasion, yet in Syria, the same governments frequently quote detailed figures, despite lacking essential access.
As if to underline the argument against casualty statistics, just last month we heard that Libyan death tolls had been highly exaggerated. Libya’s new government now claims that casualties on both sides have been revised down to around 5,000 each for rebels and supporters of Muammar Gaddafi. Did politics come into play? Recall that NATO intervention was enabled by allegations that Ghaddafi had killed tens of thousands of civilians. Opponents of NATO intervention conversely argue that the aerial bombardment of Libya resulted in 50,000 deaths.
And yet Benetech plans to launch a second phase of this bizarre numbers game for the UN – this time, to fill in gaps for deaths that “may have gone undocumented” in the Syrian conflict. Using analytical tools modeled from other conflicts, the statisticians will essentially extrapolate from the current Syrian casualty data, which they already acknowledge may not be “real” or accurate. In other words: more unverified data to compound the existing unverified data. And more hyped-up numbers to blare from headlines.
“What does it matter who is dying and who is killing? Why should the essential journalistic questions of who, what, where, when and how apply when a hundred people are dying each day?”
Here’s why detail matters. In the past year the Syrian death toll has increased ten-fold. A big part of why this has happened is because of weapons flowing willy-nilly into the hands of unstructured, undisciplined rebel militias with competing ideologies and command structures. The weaponization of the conflict has, in turn, been made possible by non-stop narratives about “regime massacres of civilians and the need for said civilians to defend themselves.”
Provocative attacks on army checkpoints by rebels since early 2011 are not defensivepostures. Neither are car bombs and suicide bombs in urban areas. Nor sabotage and destruction of key infrastructure vital to the citizenry – water, electricity, food factories, etc.
The fact is that, left unquestioned, the narrative of “regime massacring civilians” has scene-set and paved the way for governments hostile to the Syrian leadership toweaponize this conflict – as though this, in itself, was a humanitarian gesture that would “save civilians” somehow.
In whose warped mind does arming a disparate rebellion – representative of perhaps only half the population – against a far more sophisticated centralized army ever change the odds? The weaponization of the Syrian conflict was never to save civilians. It was about increasing the regime’s vulnerabilities and hoping for momentum that may lead to its downfall.
In the interim, this weaponization has killed tens of thousands of Syrians with no obvious signs that arming rebels contributes to the safety of civilians. On the contrary, Syria is scattered with the dead bodies of tens of thousands of these armed men, soldiers and militiamen both. And hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been displaced by the escalation of violent conflict caused by militarization.
Yet I see little evidence that the regime-massacring-civilians narrative will be relinquished by those pursuing their own political objectives inside Syria. Qatar just sent $100 million to the “humanitarian arm” of the Syrian opposition – as if there is such a body – because the European Union won’t officially remove an arms embargo. And western politicians are being prodded by self-serving “regime massacre” and “horrible death toll” headlines to consider further weaponization of the crisis.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani’s reasoning behind this new “humanitarian” paycheck: “the rebels only want to be able to defend themselves,” adding that an arms embargo “will only prolong the crisis.”
His British counterpart William Hague – who ostensibly does not send weapons to Syria for good reason, yet does not object to Qatar doing so - repeats a tired refrain about considering all options “to save the lives of the Syrian people.”
Saving lives indeed.
The UN casualty-counting-circus will plough ahead, fanning the flames of armed conflict instead of easing the way to a mediated political solution. But Navi Pillay would be well advised to think twice about participating in this non-contextual, numbers-over-details game in Syria, a country where disputed death tolls feature in its recent history:
Last autumn, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) declassified its report on Syria’s 1979-82 armed Islamist insurgency. The document quite startlingly concludes that the Syrian Army’s infamous assault on Hama resulted in only 2,000 deaths in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, including “an estimated 300-400 members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s elite Secret Apparatus.” The DIA’s 2,000 estimate, which may be unrealistically low, is still a far cry from the 10,000, 20,000 and even 40,000 reported by history books and regime foes alike.
Syria has seen this dirty numbers game before
An abridged version of this article appeared in The Guardian on February 15, 2013