Counting Syria’s Dead

James Denseiow

The monitoring body the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported 125 Syrians killed by fighting or torture over the month of May. Over the course of the entire conflict SNHR estimate that 226,247 civilians have lost their lives. However, the “complex and dangerous” nature of Syria’s civil war has made it impossible for the UN to accurately update the death toll since 2014.

Counting the dead in chaotic conflict zones is a perennial challenge. The first aspect of it is the practical; who does it and how? Whilst nominally independent monitoring groups have done heroic efforts to record deaths in the Syria conflict, they are only able to operate outside of areas of Regime control inevitably leading to questions as to the neutrality. This links to the secondary aspect which is that death tolls are inherently political.

The Regime unsurprisingly denies causing most civilian deaths. Such deniability extends to accusations following chemical weapons attacks, that Opposition groups themselves have attacked civilians living under areas that they themselves control. Yet the issue of denying the consequences of especially weapons with wide area effects extends to the global coalition that has been fighting ISIS in Syria.

The British, for example, claim to have only killed one civilian whilst killing 4,000 members of ISIS. Explaining such a surprising disconnect a UK Minister told a Committee of MPs that it was “not our position that there has only been a single civilian casualty as a result of our military action. What we are saying is that we only have evidence of what we believe to have been a single civilian casualty. That is a rather different position.”

The challenge of evidence of civilian deaths in modern warfare is significant but crucially important. As conflicts are increasingly fought in built-up urban environments with large numbers of civilians in the vicinity, weapons designed for battlefields are being deployed with devastating effect. Artillery or air delivered weapons may be precise, landing directly on top of a snipers nest for example, but if they carry a large explosive load the reverberating effects could destroy the entire block of buildings, take out the water and electricity supplies and lead to a devastating knock on effects.

In Syria the skeletal hulks of former city suburbs in Aleppo, Raqqa, Homs and other parts of the country are a living testament to the scale of destruction. Often entire families were killed at once, leaving nobody behind to speak of their deaths, many more have been lost beneath to rubble invisible to Coalition drones doing damage assessments or the indifference of Regime military commanders.

The modern challenge is to assess not just observable harm, but unobservable harm. Syria’s dead, for example, are not just those killed in attacks but as a consequence of being denied treatment in destroyed hospitals, denied medicine for chronic conditions or as a consequence of being denied access to clean water and food following displacement from their homes.

Recording the dead in a war is not just important to recognise levels of harm and to pursue accountability for war crimes, it also is a fundamental human dignity to know if someone is alive or dead. I remember visiting a laboratory in Bosnia that was still identifying the remains of people buried in mass graves so that they could confirm to relatives that their family member was dead, not simply missing. The overall estimates of direct deaths in Syria range from between 384,000 and about 586,100. That 200,000 or so people could be unaccounted for, with no graves or even official recording of their death is a travesty that will impact on the country’s ability to grieve, recover and chart a path towards a better future.

Yet because casualty recording is ignored by so many it allows the worst perpetrators to get away with it. This may change as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. Suddenly outside of conflict settings we have a robust debate about how deaths are recorded and the difference between direct deaths and indirect deaths. Perhaps for the first time ever people are sensitive to concepts such as ‘excess’ death tolls as they hear more and more about the numbers killed by the virus.

The New York Times had a front page to mark the 100,000 death from COVID-19 that simply listed the names of those who’d died. This was an important act of recognition that these people were not simple digits in a statistic but rather were people with families and human stories. For too long now Syria’s huge death toll, as inaccurate as it may be, has been an excuse to switch off from the conflict. Even if global powers lack the imagination and means to end the conflict they could and should do far more to ensure that monitoring and recording of those who’ve died is done.

by : jamse danselow