This is a war between a state that has popular support and an insurgency that doesn’t, and therefore the causes of the violence are ongoing attempts by anti-government insurgents to overthrow the state.
A large proportion of casualties have been Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers, their military allies, and their opponents among the insurgents.
Civilians have been targeted overwhelmingly if not solely by different insurgent groups, but have undoubtedly also been unintentionally killed as a consequence of SAA operations to clear population centres of insurgents. This is a war after all.
Ever since the war began, governments, the same governments that have been hostile to the Syrian government have also repeated the claim that the Syrian government is responsible for the overwhelming majority of the death toll caused by the fighting.
An example of this came on the 3rd of March, 2015 when UN Security Council President Francois Delattre stated, “there can be no solution in Syria with Bashar Al-Assad” and that “the head of the Syrian regime, we have to remember the basics of the situation, is responsible for principally 220,000 deaths in the conflict”.
The phrase “responsible for” can assume two different meanings.
There’s the first meaning, the one which invokes the Nuremberg trials following the second world war, when the the chief prosecutor, an American judge Robert H. Jackson argued that the party initiating a war of aggression are the ones responsible for “the accumulated evil of the whole” – referring to the destruction caused by the aggression.
According to this definition, holding the Syrian government responsible for the consequences of the war makes little sense if one accepts the premise that the original source of, and continued impetus for the fighting are the attempts by insurgencies across Syria to overthrow the state making the state defenders by definition.
There’s also the second meaning which apportions blame to the side responsible for causing the most civilian deaths – according to this definition it’s very difficult to place the majority, let alone all the blame, on the Syrian government because the very sources cited by the UN do not support Delattre’s conclusions.
Firstly, according to a statement published in June 2013, the UN bases their estimates on data provided by the following sources:
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
Violations Documentation Centre
Syrian Centre for Statistics and Research
Government of Syria (up to March 2012 only)
Syrian Network for Human Rights
March 15 Group
Syrian Revolution General Council
The two most quoted these days are the first two.
The most widely quoted source in this list is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is run by Rami Abdul-Rahman, real name Osama Suleiman, a Syrian exile based in London, who claims to base his information on activist sources inside Syria.
According to this source, which dominates all western reporting regarding the war’s casualties, the latest aggregate casualty count released on the 7th of February, 2015, arrived at the following figures:
Syrian Arab Army: 45,385
National Defence Forces: 29,943
Foreign Insurgents: 24,989
Defected soldiers 2,498
Foreign pro-govt militias: 2,502
TOTAL: 245,887 (YPG casualties not included)
The figures can be recategorised as follows:
Government and pro-government combatants: 78,470
Anti government combatants: 63,314
TOTAL: 242,757 (Excludes ‘Unidentified’ casualties)
This isn’t to argue that the SOHR’s figures are correct, rather to demonstrate that those outlets claiming that the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of the death-toll (i.e. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Avaaz.) are basing their allegations overwhelmingly on the SOHR, which despite its openly anti-government stance, nonetheless claims that more soldiers on the government’s side have been killed than anti-government insurgents.
Then there’s the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) which is also widely cited.
For example President Assad’s interview with the BBC, the interviewer Jeremy Bowen made the following allegation (at 7:25):
“…Human Rights Watch [HRW] for example, 30th of January this year, has said that forces loyal to Bashar Assad, “have deliberately and viciously attacked civilians in opposition-held areas using indiscriminate weapons, notoriously barrel bombs” [end quote]”
Although the HRW article Bowen cites doesn’t mention any sources for civilian casualties, previous HRW publications have based their allegations on the VDC.
In July 2014 an HRW report titled ‘Syria: Barrage of Barrel Bombs’ reported the following:
“The Violations Documentation Centre reported that aerial attacks killed 1,655 civilians in the Aleppo governorate between February 22 and July 22.”
The VDC’s casualty figures are divided into the following two categories:
1) ‘The Revolution’s Martyrs’, which refers to anyone the VDC alleges to have been “killed by regime forces”, puts total casualties at: 116,150.
2) ‘The Regime’s Fatalities’, which includes all those the VDC alleges were killed by anti-government forces, puts total casualties at: 18,472.
Let’s focus on the the first part which provides the following casualty breakdown:
Adult male civilian: 61,013 (53%)
Adult male combatant: 32,772 (28%)
Child male civilian: 9,181 (8%)
Child male combatant: 248 (~0%)
MALE TOTAL: 103,214 (89%)
Adult female civilian: 8,552 (7%)
Adult female combatant: 6 (~0%)
Child female civilian: 4,378 (4%)
Child female combatant: 0 (0%)
FEMALE TOTAL: 12,936 (11%)
[All percentages are of 116,150]
Among adult males civilians are 53%, and combatants are 28 percent meaning that adults males together, who are roughly a third of Syria’s population, make up 81% of the total death toll.
There are two main reasons to suggest that large numbers of deaths listed as adult male civilians are indeed armed combatants
Firstly, of the 32,772 adult male combatants, ~87% are listed as FSA – ‘Free Syrian Army’.
This proportion appears unusually high especially since the majority of the SAA’s battles these days are against other more prominent militias such as the Islamic State (ISIS), the Islamic Front, and the Al-Nusra Front.
Whatever their motives, it’s quite possible the VDC are listing fighters from other militias as civilians.
To cite one likely example, on the 11th of February the names of 53 Jaysh Al-Islam militants killed in an SAA offensive in Douma, which is an insurgent stronghold near Damascus, was published by Al-Masdar News, which has access to exclusive information from the Syrian government.
The first name on the Al-Masdar list was ‘Hisham Al-Sheikh Bakri’.
A similar VDC record under the same town (Douma) and around the same date, can be found under the name ‘Hisham Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh Bakri’ however this one is listed as an adult male civilian and not a Jaish Al-Islam fighter.
In fact the bulk of the names on Al-Masdar’s list can be found listed as ‘civilians’ by the VDC.
The practice of listing dead insurgents as civilians was described by Nir Rosen (who made a name for his journalism while covering the Iraq war) as early as February 2012:
“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes.”
In the absence of an independent demographic analysis such as the kind that was conducted by The Lancet medical journal to measure mortality rates during the Iraq war, it is difficult to verify the accuracy of the claims made by these various casualty counting organisations.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights is objectively the least reliable.
Their database lists the various combatants, including the Syrian government, the YPG, Al-Nusra, ISIS, etc. and accuses them each of murdering a number of civilians, thereby suggesting that they’re not killing each other – that they’re *only* civilians – this is absurd.
Closely scrutinising the sources cited by those accusing the Syrian government of killing the most civilians reveals that such accusations are built on extremely weak foundations.