Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Originally published in Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Print version available here.


The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Asad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue.


Claim #1: 60,000 Syrians Have Been Killed to Date

One of the primary reasons offered for supporting regime change in Syria is the al-Asad regime’s supposed “indiscriminate butchering” of its “own people.”

On January 2, 2013, the United Nations released its first comprehensive study, estimating that more than 60,000 lives have been lost in the Syrian conflict since March 2011.[1] The obvious problem with this statistic is that, independently (as it is usually presented), it provides no differentiation of who has been killed in the conflict (How many are civilians, how many combatants, from which sect/ethnicity?) nor who killed them (Did they die at the hands of the regime, the rebels, or is it unclear?) nor how they died (Were their deaths accidental? Were they combatants? Were they victims of a massacre or other war crime?).

This information would not change how tragic the situation is, but it is important for understanding the dynamics of the conflict. Ambiguity, however, is convenient for the insurgency as it helps obscure the extent to which these deaths are the results of rebel actions, especially in the cases of war crimes and civilian deaths—allowing the entirety of the bloodshed to be laid at the feet of the regime. Finally, the larger the total number of dead are perceived to be, the more likely it is that the international community will be spurred into intervening. These factors may actually incentivize the rebels to increase their violent actions, in the hope of enticing the government to “react,” thereby increasing civilian casualties (resulting in increased domestic and international support of their movement, as well as opposition to the regime). This tactic is not unique to the situation in Syria; such methods have been used elsewhere, recently in Bosnia and Kosovo.[2]

While these scale of violence in Syria is horrific, it is important to keep perspective: the rate of killings thus far is less than half that of the first three years of the Iraq invasion and civil war.[3] And by contrast, when faced with a similar uprising the Syrian president’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Asad, killed nearly as many people in a single month as were killed in the first 18 months of this conflict.[4]

In short, the rhetoric defining Bashar al-Asad as a bloodthirsty and indiscriminate killer obscures very important nuances about the dynamics of the conflict, such as who is being killed, by whom, and by what means. Moreover, it interferes with evaluating the data in relation to other regional conflicts and civil wars. These effects are exacerbated by the way the number of “civilian” deaths is typically calculated.


Claim #2: Most Casualties Have Been Civilians

The primary source that most media outlets turn to for their casualty statistics is the Britain-based, pro-rebellion Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). On its Facebook page, the Observatory does differentiate casualties as noncombatants, rebels or soldiers as often as possible—and includes rudimentary information on how some of these died (unsurprisingly, this information seems to be most available in instances where they can attribute deaths to the regime). However, the media rarely utilizes any of this data, to the extent that it is accurate. As has been argued by others,[5] each side has the desire to “show only its own, amplify the numbers, and disregard the rest.”

For instance, when it is stated that the majority of the victims of the conflict have been civilians, this number is achieved by conflating the dead non-military rebel fighters with noncombatants.[6] While militiamen technically are civilians (simply by virtue of being non-military), the connotation of civilian is “non-combatant;” i.e., a victim of the conflict who was not actively taking part in it. In fact, this connotation is cynically exploited when delivering the statistic in order to fit the media narrative that the regime is “indiscriminately slaughtering its own people.”[7]

How should we determine how many of these “civilian” deaths are combatants v. non-combatants? As a heuristic, we can assume that there have been at least as many civilian rebel fighters killed as there have been soldiers. This is likely a grave understatement of the civilian militia deaths; the ratio seems to be closer to 2:1, which is to be expected, given the stark differences in training and firepower between the two sides (up to now, the so-called “Free Syrian Army” has been handily defeated in every encounter with the regime).

SOHR estimates that of the 46,068 casualties they’ve recorded in Syria, 11,487 have been soldiers in the Syrian Arab Army. Once we subtract these slain soldiers, assume an equivalent number of rebel militiamen and add the 1,535 casualties they recorded from among military defectors, we can see that actually non-combatants are a minority of the casualties in the conflict from SOHR’s own dataset.[8] And should we assume anything like a 2:1 ratio of rebel deaths to soldier deaths, then the number of noncombatants killed would actually be just over 10,000, or approximately one quarter of SOHR’s total dead.

The more comprehensive U.N.-commissioned study suggests that the overwhelming majority of the casualties were likely fighting-aged males [9] rather than women, young children, or the elderly. While a good many of the datasets they relied upon were lacking critical details which prevented them from clearly parsing how many were combatants or noncombatants, at the very least their findings are consistent with the claim that most of those killed have been combatants.

Regarding noncombatant casualties, it is unlikely that all of these were killed by the regime, either. It would be astonishing to assume that there was no collateral damage from any rebel actions. One would expect a number of friendly-fire and misfire incidents, as largely untrained militiamen are taking hold of fairly powerful weapons and deploying them in fluid and urban environments. Moreover, scores of civilians have been killed in car-bombs, suicide bombings and other terror incidents; there have been numerous reports of crimes committed against ethnic and religious minorities, many of which have been attributed to members of the opposition. Of these alone, we can see that a high number of the noncombatant casualties can be laid at the feet of the opposition, without even considering the large percentage of collateral damage that cannot principally be attributed to one side over another.

Ultimately, however, there are probably better numbers to attend to than the casualty statistics, in evaluating both the human cost of the war and the dynamics of the conflict. For instance, it is important to bear in mind the 733,196 registered Syrian refugees taking shelter in neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and North Africa; it is estimated that this number will soon exceed 1 million.[10] This large influx of people is straining already sparse state resources, and the refugees themselves are coming increasingly into conflict with the authorities and local population of their host countries. This may Syria’s neighbors to re-evaluate their positions and posture on the war.

Another important number to bear in mind is the 2.5 million internally displaced within Syria.[11] The country’s infrastructure has been decimated and the food-growing season has been severely interrupted.[12] With winter setting in, and with food, fuel, medicine and other critical resources in extremely short supply, there is a growing humanitarian crisis within and around Syria. These pressures may turn a good deal of the neutral domestic population against the rebels in order to draw an end to the conflict and restore order and functionality to the state.[13]

Beyond the numbers, if we want to evaluate the ethical dimensions of the conflict, we should not only deplore the (well-documented and oft-discussed) oppression and brutality of the al-Asad regime, but also the increasing incidences of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the rebels. These include, but are not limited to, ethnoreligious cleansing/ persecution, the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, and torture. As these occurrences become more prevalent, the opposition will lose its moral force domestically, if not internationally. Moreover, the ubiquity of these events raises serious concerns about what sort of situation will follow the regime (should it be deposed), even in the case of a negotiated settlement.

Leave a Reply