Will we ever really know how many people have died in Syria since 2011?

Will we ever really know how many people have died in Syria since 2011?
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Syria’s nine-year conflict, but different organisations have provided different numbers, with some being far more transparent about their methods than others.
10 min read
28 January, 2020
Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, have been killed in Syria's conflict [Getty]
When the first protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime began in Syria in 2011, very few people could have imagined that nine years later, hundreds of thousands of people would be killed, entire towns destroyed, and nearly half of the country's population would be displaced

Shortly after the Syrian uprising began and the first casualties fell, local and international organisations began attempting to keep track of how many people had been killed. However, today there are wildly differing estimates and tallies and many questions about the reliability of the various methods used to calculate the casualties. 

Perhaps the most widely quoted casualties monitor is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, headed by Rami Abdul Rahman, but this organisation is particularly opaque regarding its methodology. Until 2016, the United Nations also produced estimates of casualties but stopped collecting and analysing figures in 2014.

In 2016, a UN official estimated that 400,000 people have been killed in the Syria since 2011. The UN had previously relied on figures from six different organisations, including the Syrian regime itself, to produce its toll. This work, however, had to stop in 2014 because four of the organisations were unable to update their data and the UN's final report noted that two of the organisations it had previously relied on, the Syrian regime and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, had declined to provide them with information in 2014 or to respond to the analysts' requests for information. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – how is it counting?

While the Syrian Observatory has continued to publish data there is no information regarding its methodology on its website, and for a long time at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, it recorded more Syrian regime military casualties than civilian casualties.

For example, in December 2013, it claimed that 52,290 of the casualties it had counted from March 2011 until that date were regime soldiers, in contrast to 29,083 rebels and 11,709 civilians. 

Such a high ratio of regime fighters to civilians was very implausible at this time. The Syrian uprising had started out as an unarmed uprising in March 2011. The regime had a monopoly on weapons at the beginning, and still has a monopoly on air power, allowing it to launch devastating strikes against civilians. By the time SOHR had released these figures, the regime had already committed several notorious massacres in which hundreds of civilians had died, including the ones in Banias, Tremseh, Darayya, Houla, and the chemical massacre in Ghouta

Hamit Dardagan, the co-director of Every Casualty, an organisation which promotes accurate recording of casualties from conflicts worldwide, says that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights were "not transparent about their data and their methods".

Brian Slocock, the former Head of Politics at the University of Paisley, who has been closely following the Syrian conflict, points out that at the beginning of the conflict SOHR reported an even higher death toll of regime soldiers than the regime itself.

The Syrian Observatory, however, remains the go-to organisation regarding Syrian casualties for many non-Arab news agencies and English-language media, including The New Arab. It has previously claimed to have a network of over 200 sources inside Syria. The New Arab has contacted the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights regarding its methodology and the concerns regarding its figures, but has not received a response.

Read also: Hard economic times test the patience of Assad loyalists

In a more recent death toll, released in December 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 560,000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011, including 111,330 civilians killed in military attacks, 104,000 tortured to death in regime jails, 115,344 regime soldiers and pro-regime fighters, 63,561 non-regime and anti-regime fighters including members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and 65,108 members of the Islamic State group [IS] and groups linked to al-Qaeda.

The SOHR's inclusion of military, as well as civilian casualties in its death tolls, mean that its casualty figures are higher than that of other casualty monitors. Dardagan says that the higher casualties published by SOHR throughout the conflict may have raised its media profile in contrast to other casualty monitors.

"SOHR generally had the highest figures, and those who want to highlight how bad a conflict is will tend to cite data with the highest casualty numbers; having higher figures makes you appear more comprehensive, i.e. a 'better' casualty recorder because you capture more of the death toll."

In general, Dardagan and Slocock say, military deaths in wars are usually overestimated while civilian deaths tend to be undercounted.

Military deaths in wars are usually overestimated while civilian deaths tend to be undercounted

Opposing sides like to claim that they have killed large numbers of enemy combatants while ignoring or minimising the civilian casualties caused by their actions, and it is difficult for activists, journalists, and medical workers to be everywhere all the time to document civilian deaths.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights – has the regime really killed that many people?

While the SOHR has a high profile in English-language media, Syrian opposition activists tend to view it with suspicion because of its opacity. Arabic-language media sources are more inclined to trust the similarly-named Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) over the SOHR as it is much more transparent about its methodology, which is available to read on its website.

It says that it relies on on testimonies of survivors of attacks and family members of victims. It also has a more extensive classification system for the casualties it records than the Syrian Observatory, categorising deaths according to several criteria including the age and gender of the victim and the affiliation of the perpetrator. Every Casualty has noted that the details it provides make it easy to verify its casualties.

However SNHR has only been able to document 224,948 casualties of the Syrian conflict since March 2011. It stresses  that it can only record some civilian casualties and a small portion of casualties of the non-extremist armed opposition, citing the hostility of the Syrian regime to human rights organisations and their work. Fadel Abdul Ghani, the chairman of SNHR says that its list of casualties is nowhere near exhaustive and that hundreds of thousands more civilians, as well as fighters that the SNHR doesn't document, are likely to have died in Syria since March 2011.

The undercounting of civilian casualties seems to be a problem faced by all organisations using similar methods to the SNHR.

Walid Saffour, the head of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, another group which collects data on casualties, told The New Arab that his organisation had documented 156,877 casualties from the conflict. Like Abdul Ghani, he says that his list is nowhere near exhaustive, saying that it only contains casualties which the Committee can identify by name.

"There are many civilian casualties we cannot name and we don't document fighters from any side. We also cannot document civilian casualties in regime areas because of the media blackout there," Saffour said.

Just over 90 percent of the civilian casualties documented by SNHR have been killed by the Assad regime or its Russian ally. At first examination, this seems like an incredibly high proportion. However, Abdul Ghani says that the figure is actually not high at all given the disproportionate capabilities of the regime and Russia on the one hand and the rebels on the other.

"The percentage of casualties caused by Russia and the regime is not too high at all," he told The New Arab. "If you monitor the Syrian conflict casualties closely, you notice that 70 to 75 percent of  them were the victims of artillery or air force shelling. This is the main cause of killing. Aircraft, artillery, helicopters – these weapons aren't in the hands of the rebels or the Kurdish forces or even IS.

"We have recorded dozens of incidents of random shelling by the Kurdish forces, rebels, IS and HTS using cannons, rockets and mortars but they don't have an air force.

"The [rebel's weapons] are an important cause of casualties for sure but their effect is very limited. The mass destruction is caused by aerial bombing – barrel bombs and missiles," he added.

Read also: Human rights group documents forced disappearance of over 98,000 Syrians

Nearly all of the casualty monitoring organisations in Syria have been associated with the Syrian opposition. However,  the methodology of the SNHR and other groups like the Violations Documentations Centre, which was founded by the Syrian uprising's Local Coordination Committees, has been verified by international human rights groups and their data used by the United Nations.

The Syrian regime stopped giving data on casualties to the United Nations in 2012 and today it does not maintain any toll of casualties. But its news agency SANA often reports the killing of civilians by rebel bombardment of regime-held areas, such as Aleppo, and pro-regime websites and social media pages have published information about regime military "martyrs".  

Debating death from Iraq to Syria – casualty counting versus epidemiological survey

Syria, however, is not the only recent conflict in the Middle East to have produced differing estimates regarding casualty figures. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, there were heated debates over the number of casualties from the invasion.

Hamit Dardagan and John Sloboda set up Iraq Body Count to count the civilian victims of the war, relying on media reports and figures from hospitals and other sources.

By mid-2006, they had documented that 52,000 people had been killed. However, they found themselves criticised by other opponents of the war when a study by the British medical journal, The Lancet, estimated that over 600,000 people (civilians and combatants) had died as a result of the invasion between 2003 and June 2006.

The Lancet used a very different method to estimate casualties – an epidemiological survey looking the distribution of deaths in a sample of the Iraqi population before and after the US invasion and using the excess rate of deaths after the invasion to estimate the total number of deaths caused. 

The Lancet's study was controversial and a later survey by the Iraqi Health Ministry and the World Health Organization, using similar methods, found that roughly 151,000 people had died violently in Iraq following the US invasion.

In Syria, only one epidemiological survey has been conducted since the beginning of the conflict. That was the "Confronting Fragmentation" Study published by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research in February 2016, a think-tank which, until shortly after the report's publication was based in regime-held Damascus.

The study divided Syria into 700 districts and asked three experts from each area to estimate the death toll in their area. The report's authors seem to have had access to data from regime-held areas of the country. They summed the averages of the experts' answers to produce an estimate of 470,000 people killed in the Syrian conflict between March 2011 and February 2016. This however, is clearly only an estimate produced under very difficult conditions that make more accurate studies impossible.

Since February 2016, hundreds of thousands of more people have been killed, and the regime and its Russian ally have indiscriminately bombed rebel-held civilian areas tens of thousands of times in their quest to gain control of the whole of Syria.

But there has been no serious, verifiable attempt to estimate the total number of casualties of the conflict using epidemiological methods since then. The number of casualties, while clearly running into the high hundreds of thousands and maybe even exceeding a million, remains unknown.

What monitoring organisations and human rights groups agree on, however, is that the regime and Russia, with their much more destructive weaponry and their monopoly on air power, are responsible for the vast majority of casualties.

Walid Saffour says that the 156,877 casualties that his Syrian Human Rights Committee has documented may make up as little as one-eighth of the total number of casualties of the Syrian conflict.

Kellie Strom, the editor of the journal Syria Notes, says that the total number of casualties may never be known.

"Minimum counts are of verified violent deaths. Not only do unverified violent deaths go uncounted, so do war related early deaths from exposure or lack of medical care for treatable conditions. The scale of death is enormous and most likely immeasurable," he told The New Arab.

Less and less attention is being paid today to the conflict in Syria by the international community, and the regime which human rights groups accuse of killing the most people in Syria seems more confident of its ability to stay in power as it gains territory on the ground.

It is extremely unlikely that the Assad regime will ever allow further research into casualty numbers in the areas it controls. While hundreds of thousands of casualties have been documented, it is likely that the true number of casualties may never be known, even though there is a general consensus today that it is now well over 500,000.

Amr Salahi is a journalist at The New Arab. 

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