The War Over Syria’s War Dead
Assad is routinely accused of murdering 250,000 of his own people. The only problem is that there’s no proof he did.
On Dec. 19, in the heat of a presidential debate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton blamed the Syrian government for killing 250,000 of its own people. Over the last few months, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain have made similar claims. Yet there is no evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is responsible for killing a quarter-million people -- even if governments involved in the nearly five-year civil war continue to exploit the death toll for political aim.
On Dec. 19, in the heat of a presidential debate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton blamed the Syrian government for killing 250,000 of its own people. Over the last few months, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain have made similar claims. Yet there is no evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is responsible for killing a quarter-million people — even if governments involved in the nearly five-year civil war continue to exploit the death toll for political aim.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also has estimated Syria’s war dead at 250,000 — but has stopped far short of blaming Assad’s government for all of them.
Establishing a past death count in the midst of civil war may seem like an abstraction when international diplomatic efforts are focused on ending the war and preventing more killing. But death counts can have a powerful influence on public opinion, prodding governments into action. The U.N. publishes death counts in other war zones, including Afghanistan and Yemen, to increase pressure on the combatants to show restraint.
Fueling the disagreements over the war dead is the fact that counting Syria’s fatalities has proved a maddeningly imperfect science, and even Ban’s closest advisors concede that the figure he cites is an educated guess at best. It has frustrated efforts by the U.N. and an array of independent human rights activists to present the world with a definitive tally of the country’s war dead — and, in turn, assign responsibility for the killings.
“These estimates matter; they matter politically, and they matter in terms of setting the historical record straight,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy columnist, who has written about the death count. “If you claim to care about protecting civilians from harm, you have to understand how civilians are being harmed, specifically what is the form of lethality that leads to deaths.”
There is broad agreement among international and Syrian human rights groups that Assad’s regime — which is laying siege to at least 180,000 Syrians and routinely bombards opposition-controlled towns with barrel bombs — has killed far more civilians than armed rebel and extremist groups. In recent days, the Syrian government has faced international condemnation for starving civilians in the rebel-controlled city of Madaya.
State Department spokesman John Kirby would not provide U.S. internal estimates on the scale of the war dead in Syria. However, he said, “we are confident that the vast majority of killing has been committed by the Assad regime and its allies,” adding that “credible” nongovernmental organizations do as well.
“The fact that the U.N. is unable to reliably publish a death count only underscores the depths to which the crisis has plunged,” Kirby said.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, countered American claims about the credibility of death figures compiled by independent human rights groups.
“Nobody could double-check these figures, or triple-check them; we are not sure about these figures,” he said, noting that numbers are sometimes exaggerated. Jaafari said the overall death toll in Syria might be higher than 250,000 but called the Assad government the victim, not the perpetrator.
Less attention has been paid to fatalities suffered by government forces and their backers. One frequently cited Syrian group, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), claims more than 90,000 Syrians killed were members of government forces or pro-government militias. In the past year, according to the observatory, more Syrian regime forces (17,600) died than civilians (13,000).
Yet Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chair of the independent U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, said last June that most attacks against Syrian civilians are carried out by combatants — and largely by Assad’s forces.
“The government, with its superior firepower and control of the skies, inflicts the most damage in its indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited cities, towns, villages, and makeshift IDP [internally displaced person] camps,” Pinheiro said in a statement.
The Syrian government has not given official death figures to the U.N. in more than two-and-a-half years. Virtually no pro-regime organizations provide detailed accounts of the war dead, leaving it to a network of independent or largely opposition Syrian activists and human rights groups to collect data on the conflict. But their figures are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights — which manages conflict death tolls — stopped counting Syria’s dead in the summer of 2014, citing lack of access to killing zones and an ever-diminishing confidence in data sources.
At least six presidential candidates, including Clinton, and Republicans Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, have declared support for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to protect civilians from Assad and Russian air power. Clinton cited the 250,000 killed, which she attributed to Assad, in making a case during the Democratic debate for a no-fly zone. Her campaign did not respond to several emailed requests for comment. Graham’s and McCain’s staffs also did not respond to emailed requests for comment Wednesday.
The distinction is important because, experts said, a more accurate assessment of the death toll might require different policy decisions.
Figures published by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, for example, suggest more civilians were shot to death (19,150) or shelled (26,241) than by those killed in airstrikes (17,199) through the end of May 2015. If true, a no-fly zone would lend only limited protection for the majority of victims, Zenko said. The Obama administration has resisted imposing a no-fly zone, as it would require deploying hundreds, if not thousands, of infantry and other supporting ground troops to Syria.
Other U.S. presidential candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump, have cited the Islamic State’s ability and desire to launch mass killings from Raqqa to Paris to San Bernardino in arguing the United States and other key powers should work with Assad to topple the extremist group’s burgeoning caliphate.
The number of people the Islamic State has killed, however, remains relatively small, according to Syrian groups trying to document deaths. The Syrian Network for Human Rights claims that the Islamic State has killed 1,712, while the Violations Documentation Center claims that the extremist group has killed 4,406 since the beginning of the war. But the center says the number could be double that.
Russia, meanwhile, has seized on the discrepancy among death tolls produced by independent groups to discredit all attempts to assign responsibility — including for the hundreds of people allegedly killed by Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
Last October, after SOHR claimed Russian airstrikes killed 13 in a Syrian hospital, Moscow cast doubt on the group’s credibility, given its limited data and sources. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova even dismissed the group’s director, Rami Abdulrahman, as a fast-food-joint owner without a secondary education: “One might as well cite a waiter in a pizzeria.”
Some observers say the muddled effort to count the numbers has played into the hands of Assad’s supporters, including Russia, who want to shift the debate to death tolls and away from forcing the Syrian strongman to relinquish power.
“I can understand the controversy about the numbers, but that cannot distract from the bigger picture,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“The truth is Assad has far superior firepower and is willing and able to inflict much greater casualties, including civilians. It’s part of the Assad strategy,” Hokayem said. “It is a deliberate regime strategy to shift the suffering on neighboring countries and humanitarian agencies, leading to policy proposals where stopping the fighting is the focus rather than a [political] transition.”
In the early months of Syria’s civil war, a disparate group of activists and human rights groups, including SOHR and the Violations Documentation Center, began counting Syria’s dead to draw attention to the Assad regime’s atrocities. But as the conflict wore on, and attracted opposition militias and extremists, then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay decided to take on the task.
In February 2012, Pillay, who has since stepped down, commissioned the San Francisco-based Human Rights Data Analysis Group to use advanced statistics to cull through a welter of news reports, government accounts, and human rights reporting in search of a reliable count.
The analysis firm relied heavily on a network of independent Syrian organizations — including SOHR, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Violations Documentation Center, and the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research — which have contacts on the ground. The Syrian government supplied a few months of its own death estimates.
The U.N. then brought the counters to Geneva to develop a shared methodology for documenting deaths. They fed data into computer models, assembling in August 2014 a definitive estimate of 191,369 documented killings so far. At that stage, the U.N. was confident in the estimate’s veracity, even if it may have undercounted the war’s actual death toll.
But Pillay abruptly canceled the contract in August 2014, citing diminishing confidence in the numbers’ accuracy. The Syrian government, meanwhile, provided only spotty accounts of its own estimates of the dead. It provided the high commissioner’s office with its last report in March 2012, though Syria’s U.N. mission continued to submit routine reports to the U.N. Security Council to document what it claimed were terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, one of the best-known activist groups, SOHR, stopped feeding its data to the United Nations in the spring of 2013.
The quality of reporting “kind of degraded because the groups collecting data — they were getting killed, or they were fleeing” the war zones, said OHCHR chief spokesman Rupert Colville. “Basically, it was — as it always is with numbers — a less than perfect exercise.”
Abdulrahman, an exiled Syrian clothes salesman who runs SOHR out of his home in Coventry, England, said he lost faith in the U.N.’s counting enterprise. He felt some of the other Syrian monitoring groups were biased, and downplayed or ignored atrocities committed against certain groups, like Alawites, which are linked by ethnicity and religion to Assad’s regime.
“I don’t trust anyone,” Abdulrahman told FP in a telephone interview.
Abdulrahman agrees with other Syrian monitors that Damascus, which has enjoyed air superiority over the armed opposition since the war’s start, has inflicted the vast majority of civilian casualties. He claims Assad’s forces have killed 75 percent of civilians since the conflict began in March 2011.
But he maintains that most of Syria’s dead were combatants, not civilians. By his count, more Syrian regime fighters (17,600) were killed in 2015 than civilians (13,000) or opposition rebels (7,800).
Abdulrahman said the total death count in nearly five years passed 260,000 in December, similar to the number cited by the U.N. secretary-general. But that figure includes a large number of government troops (53,718), as well as pro-government militias and popular defense forces (36,784).
By contrast, 42,690 opposition fighters and 76,845 civilians have been killed, he said. The pro-Assad Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, lost 1,007 of its combatants, while foreign Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq accounted for 3,628 of the war dead.
But figures compiled by another organization, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, tell a starkly different story. The network asserts that the overwhelming majority of dead were civilians, and the Syrian regime is responsible for killing more than 180,000 of its own people. That accounts for nearly 96 percent of all civilian fatalities, compared to 1,712 killed by the Islamic State, according to the network. Last year alone, the Syrian government killed 12,044 civilians and only 3,704 rebels or extremists, the network said.
In previous conflicts, the death tolls have not survived the passage of time. During the Bosnian war, for example, estimates of the dead ranged from 250,000 to 350,000. A decade later, a comprehensive 2007 study by the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo published figures indicating about 100,000 people were killed.
“Recent conflicts show that it is very difficult to find accurate figures of casualties whilst the conflict is ongoing,” said Nerma Jelacic, a former spokeswoman for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia who now works with an organization that collects evidence of war crimes in Syria for possible future prosecutions.
The methodology of establishing death toll figures in the former Yugoslavia has been applied by some — to the extent possible — in Syria, Jelacic said, even if the war will likely be long over by the time an accurate count is given. She said by all data currently available, and “despite the callousness of the crimes of some parties in the war, it is the regime’s actions and those of its followers that have caused the most casualties to date.”
Megan Price, executive director of the San Francisco analysis firm that was crunching numbers for the U.N., said the Syria death toll could be higher than the current estimates due to what she described as the “dark figure” of undocumented killings that fall between the cracks.
In a study of war deaths from December 2012 to March 2013, Price and two other researchers estimated that the actual death toll (4,246) in the western Syrian city of Homs was probably more than double the number of documented deaths (2,037). The researchers found the number of recorded deaths tended to decline when fighting intensified.
But Price, who has spent more than four years counting Syria’s death toll, said it remains extremely difficult to make basic assumptions about the number of dead. For instance, she said, efforts to differentiate between civilians and combatants were complicated by the fact that one Syrian monitoring group might enter an individual as a civilian while another considered the same person a combatant.
Price said her firm may never establish who definitely who is responsible for killing the most Syrians. “That’s the million-dollar question,” said Price. “I think it is theoretically possible to answer that question. But I’m not personally convinced any data we have access to now is sufficient, on its own, to answer that question.”
Photo credit: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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