Syria – Counting the Cost

James Denselow
James Denselow

This month, for the first time since 2014, the UN announced an updated record of casualties of Syria’s over decade long conflict. The news that more 350,200 people have been killed, including 26,727 women and 27,126 children, barely made the global news. Syria has become somewhat of a forgotten conflict. It’s prolonged duration, complexity and plethora of armed actors – local, regional and international – has made it almost impossible for the casual observer to follow.

The early phases of the war dominated the agenda of world leaders and even the period following President Assad’s Russian backed assertion of his control, the rise and rise of ISIS meant that people were reading about Syria from Washington to Tokyo. The emergence of a rough status quo over the past couple of years has pushed things into a narrative of the conflict being paused or even that a new balance of power has been established in the country.

This, very roughly, can be described as a Kurdish controlled northeast, a Turkish backed opposition controlled northwest and then the rest of the country under Regime control. The issue of the millions of Syria refugees has been lost to the narratives of Western states strengthening their borders and the chaos of other parts of the Middle East region, with Lebanon in particular descending into its own unique blend of chaos.

The Middle East region has been consigned to a different strategic status by the actualisation of the US ‘pivot’ towards a focus on the Asia region, it’s Pacific borders and of course the complicated competitive relationship with China. The long-standing Israel-Palestinian conflict and now the prolonged wars of Yemen and Syria now lack the attention and engagement they’ve had previously. The rise of the Gulf Powers, the emergence of a far more active Turkish regional policy and the questions around Iran’s place in the neighbourhood have become tier one factors in a region that is undergoing a strategic geopolitical shift.

Where does this leave the people of Syria who’ve not even been granted the attention of the UN in counting the dead over the last seven years? Whilst few would have been surprised that the conflict in Syria has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the logic and reasoning behind accurate recording of what has happened goes far further than just painting a picture as to war. The UN in their latest reports remind readers that the 350,200 number is statistically reliable but by no means the final tally.

What looking in more detail as to who has been lost to events provides families in Syria with closure and recognition as well as giving those searching for accountability a reliable touchstone of evidence. The arc of justice sometimes runs longer than people would hope but it relies on robust information to be realised. In addition to the dead are of course the missing. A 2021 UN report estimated that 100,000 persons are missing due to the conflict. In addition, the country has a legacy of missing and disappeared persons cases linked to human rights abuses and other causes that occurred prior to the decade-long conflict, and Syrians who have fled the fighting have gone missing along migratory routes.

The UN should commit to more regularly updates into the cost of the Syria conflict and should be resourced to be able to constantly consider new sources of evidence as to what exactly has happened. One day in the future we can almost imagine what a memorial to Syria’s conflict would look like. In the US memorials to the Vietnam war or the victims of 9/11 are meticulous in their naming of individuals who lost their lives to these periods of history.

The conflict in Syria has fractured both the Syrian state and its society. In many senses the damage to the state, with the devastated cities and infrastructure is more obvious that the harm done to society. A future in which it can effectively heal and reunite relies on a shared historical narrative. That history’s ability to be inclusive as to those who paid the ultimate price relies on accurate and detailed reporting that acknowledges the fate of individuals against the far wider tapestry of the war at large. The UN’s latest efforts may represent more than the tip of the iceberg but they mustn’t be seen as an end in and of themselves.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,