- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Iraq’s civil war traumatized the Middle East unlike any other event in the past decade. It destroyed Iraq’s political and social fabric, contributed to the polarization of the Arab world along sectarian lines, and caused the United States to abandon its ambitious plans to remake the region. But by the numbers, the conflict raging in Syria today appears to be bloodier than even the worst years of the Iraq war.
According to the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria (VDC), an activist website that monitors the conflict’s death toll of the conflict, 5,037 people were killed in Syria this August. That made it the bloodiest month of the war: 3,761 people were killed in July, and 2,204 people were killed in June.
How do those numbers compare with the Iraqi casualties during the height of the civil war? According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, which has tallied civilian and military casualties since the beginning of the war, 34,500 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006, and 2,091 Iraqi military and police also lost their lives – a total of 3,049 Iraqis per month.
There’s another factor that makes the bloodshed in Syria look even worse: It’s a much smaller country than Iraq. According to World Bank figures, Iraq’s population hovers around 33 million, while Syria’s population is roughly 21 million people. Even if Syria only matched Iraq’s casualty count, it would mean that Syria, for the average person, would remain a much more dangerous place.
Think of it this way. Syria has 64 percent of the population of Iraq. If the violence in Syria this August was repeated across a country the size of Iraq, 7,915 people would be expected to lose their lives each month.
There are a number of caveats to all this. Most importantly, comparing the numbers from an activist organization like the VDC — which collects casualty reports from the anti-Assad local coordinating committees across Syria — to the Iraq Index is a fraught process. The coordinating committees have an incentive to tally each death and report a high number, in an effort to spur international action against the Syrian regime. The Iraq Index, on the other hand, primarily gathered data during the worst years of the war from the U.S. government, which had an incentive to downplay casualties.
Nevertheless, the Iraq Index’s tally of civilian casualties matches, and often exceeds, the death toll reported by independent third parties. For instance, Iraq Body Count, which measures civilian deaths from press reports, states that 28,806 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006 — 6,000 less deaths than counted by the Iraq Index. From the beginning of the war to the present, the Iraq Index finds that 116,400 civilians — a death toll that agrees with Iraq Body Count’s findings.
In the end, this comparison tells us — well, precisely nothing. The bloodshed in Iraq is not any more tolerable because Syria is in the midst of its own tragedy; Syrians, meanwhile, don’t need such statistics to know the extent of their suffering. However, it is a stark reminder of the human cost of the Syrian revolt, which promises to define the next era of Middle East politics in the same way that Iraq defined the last.