The Death Toll in Syria: What Do the Numbers Really Say?

This article appeared in Counterpunch on May 26, 2016.

What is the Syrian death toll now? 400,000? Less? More? While the aphorism “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic”, has been attributed to many, it is likely none foresaw the inverse utility of this concept for shaping narratives in an age of humanitarian intervention. Statistics are now weapons in themselves. Raw numbers are ambiguous; as journalist Sharmine Narwani writes, “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.”

When the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released its eighth summary of the Syrian death toll in mid-2015 it painted this confused picture: 230,000 total deaths, between 150,000 and 160,000 ‘opposition deaths’ (civilian and military), a further 98,000 ‘other’ civilian deaths, and a very precise 18,476 ‘regime’ deaths – an actual minimum total of 266,476.

As this example shows, there are serious problems with the Syrian statistics. As the Washington Post reported earlier in 2016 “In some ways, the details matter more than the big picture in the death toll, but again, the details are divisive.”

While death toll reporting in conflicts is never accurate, CFR’s sources are hardly reliable. It cites three pro-opposition outlets – the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights (SOHR), the Violation Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), and the Syrian Revolution Martyr Database (SRMD) – which report significantly different figures in all casualty categories. Difference could be attributable to the difficulties of gathering information and providing ‘best estimates’ – yet the VDC and SRMD, who are most often quoted by CFR provide seemingly precise detail as to date, location and even ‘death method’. You can search the VDC database choosing between ‘Field Execution’, ‘Kidnapping execution’ and ‘Kidnapping-Torture-Execution’ among many others. So which is it, fine detail or lack of it?

When searching through the ‘fine detail’, surprises emerge such as that of Akram Naif Daou, a Druze man from Suweida, killed in the Damascus suburb of Harasta by ‘regime’ shelling on the first of January 1970. Daou is one of several Syrians listed as being killed in 1970 ­– 41 years before the conflict started. You may also notice the VDC and SRMD categories named ‘Revolution’s Martyrs’ and ‘Regime Fatalities’ – labels which hardly suggest impartiality. The SRMD heads its pages with a quote from the Qur’an, revering martyrs in the service of god (Surah Al-Imran 169-170).

Moreover there are statistical discrepancies within each of the reports. For example the June 9th 2015 SOHR report – that informed CFR – is titled ‘320,000 people killed since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution’. The report begins “The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented death of 230,618 persons since 18/03/2011, which witnessed the fall of the first martyr in Daraa, until 08/06/2015.”

A gap of 90,000? The penultimate paragraph of the report explains that the SOHR “estimates the real number of non-Syrian casualties from the IS, al-Nusra Front, Islamic factions, Jund Al-Aqsa battalion, Junoud al-Sham, al-Katiba al-Khadra’, Jund al-Sham, rebel battalions, regular forces and pro-regime militants to be approximately 90,000 …”

This quote seemingly differentiates between foreign and Syrian deaths. But this is an impossibly high figure. In 2015 The International Centre For the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence put its estimate for Syria and Iraq at just over 20,000 foreign fighters – only 5-10% of whom had died.

Further detail in the report suggests a reluctance to report deaths outside the elusive ‘Free Syrian Army’, most notably: “It does not include more than 7000 regular soldiers and pro-regime militants and about 2000 of “regime supporters” captured by IS, Islamic fighters, Al-Nusra front, rebel and Islamic battalions on charge of “dealing with the regime” and “1500 fighters from the YPG, IS, al-Nusra Front, Islamic battalions and rebel battalions who were kidnapped during clashes among the mentioned parties … [or] 4000 abductees from the civilians and fighters inside IS jails from Shaitaat tribe who were kidnapped by the Islamic State in the province of Deir Ezzor”. The Shaitat tribe are Sunnis of Deir Ez-Zor who fight in support of the Syrian government.

Bias in methodology and classification is evident in the VDC too. A total ‘Regime Fatalities’ search on May 3 2016 displays 20,989 deaths – contrasting with the SOHR’s 2015 figure of around 85,000. Among these ‘Regime Fatalities’ you will find Samera Hamdan and Nesren Mouahmmed – both listed as civilian, adult-female, Deir Ez-Zor – and Hamzeh Muhmoud Habo distinctly listed as civilian, child-male. Yet all three deaths are still classified as “regime’s army”.

Such dubious sources (the SOHR won’t even disclose its methodology) led the UN to abandon its reporting of Syrian casualty figures in 2014, “…due to doubts about the accuracy of the information they were presenting…”. In 2012 the single owner/operator of the SOHR, Rami Abdulrahman, himself criticised other groups both on the ground and in communication with the UN for providing inflated and biased casualty statistics.

The statistics do serve to cast doubt on the narrative that the Syrian government is only a perpetrator of violence and not also a major victim. The SOHR’s own data has consistently shown that pro-government forces compromise more than one third of all casualties – without counting those captured by Islamist brigades. This aligns with investigations showing government forces suffering significant losses throughout the war including in violent Islamist attacks on military and civilians in early 2011.

Robert Fisk and others question the numbers and narratives where “… civilians who become “fighters” end up in civilian death lists, while men and women killed by the “good guys” don’t get on lists at all.” A former US diplomat who served three years in Damascus posed this question in the first year of the conflict: “I have serious problems with all the talk about military intervention in Syria. Everyone, especially the media, seems to be relying solely on anti-regime activists for their information. How do we know 260 people were killed by the regime in Homs yesterday? That number seems based solely on claims by anti-regime figures and I seriously doubt its accuracy.”

This suspicion is born out by numbers. Why is there, in all opposition civilian death counts, a roughly 9:1 ratio of men to women? In 2012, the data analysis company producing UN figures showed that “7.5% of the recorded dead are female, …[and] 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.”

Abdulrahman of the SOHR admitted in 2012: “I have thousands of rebels in the civilian list. I put all the non-defectors in the civilian list…It isn’t easy to count rebels because nobody on the ground says ‘this is a rebel.’ Everybody hides it.” In another interview he confirmed the view that “most of Syria’s dead were combatants, not civilians.”

The Arab League’s Mission to Syria in 2012 also stated “that many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations…[also] the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”

While we may attribute the gross male to female imbalance to the flight of women and children from the battlefront, Sharmine Narwani points out that this “actually bolsters the Syrian regime’s claim … that it warns civilians to vacate areas before launching military operations against rebels, whether by air or by ground.” Lost even further in the numbers is the question of how many opposition members and proximal civilians were killed due to opposition infighting as opposed to government attacks?

Little information is available as to who actually runs and pays for the casualty sources that Western narratives are based on. They all claim to be independent, civil non-profit, non-governmental organisations, but we should be wary. The Guardian recently reported that British “Government contractors effectively run a press office for opposition fighters but communications conceal UK’s role”.

‘Independent’ organisations in Syria – such as the ‘White Helmets’ or Syrian Civil Defense (SCD) – have been proven to be neither Syrian-run nor independent. SCD was established by former UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office official and military intelligence operative James Le Mesurier.

In its ‘Code of Conduct’ – established after SCD stretcher-bearers were filmed cooperating with a Jabhat an-Nusra execution – the SCD claims “In order to protect our independence, we will seek to avoid dependence upon a single funding source.” To date the SCD has received $23 Million in US government support. On its website the SCD claims to be neutral while calling for foreign intervention in Syria.

Western leaders, media pundits and even some academics have continued to argue that the Syrian Government is responsible for the “vast majority”, if not all, deaths in the conflict. This simply cannot be proven. Even the SOHR reports that “In the past year, according to the observatory, more Syrian regime forces (17,600) died than civilians (13,000).”

Emile Hokayem – senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London – is one academic who admits that the statistics issue is problematic for the Western regime-change narrative. Yet he insists on overlooking it, saying “I can understand the controversy about the numbers, but that cannot distract from the bigger picture”.

Renewed fighting in Aleppo throughout April saw hundreds of civilian casualties yet Western media only began reporting and criticising them after Syrian government forces seemingly responded to a week of opposition bombardment of West Aleppo. The SOHR reported “more than 220 civilians killed in Aleppo between 22 and 29 April, including 134 in rebel-controlled areas and 84 in government districts.”

On April 30th, Edward Dark – a pseudonym for a Syrian civilian in Aleppo critical of all sides – tweeted, blasting the lack of reporting on the rebel bombardment of civilians.

“As has been the case since the beginning of #Syria conflict media only shows u 1 side, no mention of massacres rebels committing in w Aleppo” as well as “it’s not Qaeda’s Nusra that r committing war crimes shelling w Aleppo but mainly FSA div 16+Sultan Murad, all west backed “moderates” #Syria.

Dark added: “Degree of 1 sided reporting by media on Aleppo is truly staggering. symbolic of entire #Syria conflict. U need 2 revisit all u’ve been told”

The story of the Syrian death toll and how it is used is another example of Ed Herman’s ‘worthy and unworthy’ victims. The worthy are those killed by people the West doesn’t like. The rest don’t fit the accepted narrative and are thus ignored. But people on the ground will remember the details of their brutalisation by all sides long after we in the West have forgotten them.

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