No real statistic for number of Syrian dead

As efforts begin to wind down five years of war in Syria, rights groups differ in giving figures for those killed

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

People and Civil Defense members carry a dead body removed from a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016.

Updated Feb 29, 2016

The regime of Syrian autocrat Bashar al Assad and armed opposition factions are set to commence a cessation of hostilities starting on Feb. 27 in a bid to renew a long-term peace plan to end the five-year-long conflict. The international community has been pushing all sides to abide by an agreement made between multiple foreign powers in Vienna last November to begin a political transition leading to fresh elections in Syria by mid-2017. As a result, a number of local ceasefires between the regime and opposition groups came into effect on Jan. 1, but the continuation of hostilities fueled by regime advances on opposition-held territories in northern Aleppo - with the support of Russian air strikes - quickly led to talks being temporarily suspended until Feb. 25.

Days earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had come to a provisional agreement to quell the escalating violence. The cessation of hostilities is conditional on the Assad regime ending its siege of 18 areas, releasing hostages and halting aerial and artillery bombardment. Nonetheless, Russian fighter jets continued to pound opposition-held territory in northwestern Idlib just one day before talks were to resume, reportedly killing eight and injuring dozens. This led many - including moderate groups fighting the regime - to speculate that Russia may use the deal to launch more attacks against them, spokesman Salem al Meslet for the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) umbrella group said in a recent meeting in Riyadh.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime is not only neglecting its obligation to uphold its end of the deal as agreed in Vienna, but continues to ignore UN resolutions that prohibit its use of barrel bombs and chemical agents. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), regime warplanes dropped 1,428 barrel bombs in January alone, killing 22 people, including seven children and four women. Since UN resolution 2139 against the use of barrel bombs by the regime was passed two years ago, at least 8,136 civilians including 2,274 children and 2,036 women have been killed in 19,947 cases, SNHR stated in a report published on Feb. 22. 

The rights group in an earlier report also said the regime had failed to abide by a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution passed on 14 September 2013 banning the use of chemical agents following a chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta a month earlier that killed more than 1,400 people. Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31 last year, a number of chemical attacks were recorded - mostly in Idlib, the Damascus suburbs, Hama, Homs, Daraa and Deir ez Zor. At least 87 people were killed and 867 injured by exposure to poisonous gas in that period, the group said.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch criticised Russia in a report published in early February for using banned cluster munitions, noting a "surge" in their usage as Russia and the regime seek to "establish control over key strategic territory in the governorates of Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, and Hama." Cluster munitions are dropped from the air and explode upon impact with the ground, releasing smaller submunitions, or bomblets, that are designed to eliminate targets over a wide area. They are banned by 118 countries around the world due to their ability to kill indiscriminately, especially when dropped in populated areas.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki moon in his report to the UN Security Council last week warned the Assad regime and Russia against intensifying their bombing of the opposition, saying, "The escalated military activity by several parties and the threats to resort to the further use of force risk derailing efforts to find a sustainable political solution and the ability of my special envoy to credibly reconvene the talks." However, in spite of all the calls to end the war, and multiple UN resolutions, the death toll in Syria continues to increase on a phenomenal scale.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said earlier this week that a total of 894 people have been killed in Syria since the last peace negotiations were held in Geneva on Jan. 29, including 155 people who were killed in a series of bombings carried out by the DAESH terrorist group in Damascus and Homs. SOHR later reported that the death toll of the DAESH bombings had risen to 190. In 2015 alone, SOHR estimated the number of people killed in Syria to be 55,219, including 20,977 civilians, 2,574 of whom were children. Despite a decrease from the 76,021 deaths recorded by the SOHR in 2014, the deadliest year in the conflict, last year was still the third deadliest.

The latest credible watchdog keeping track of the body count to release a figure, SOHR, in a report released on Feb. 22 estimated the overall death toll of the war to be as high as 370,000 people. This includes at least  271,138 documented deaths since the beginning of the war on March 18, 2011. According to the group, 122,997 of confirmed deaths were of civilians - including 13,597 children and 8,760 women over the age of 18. SOHR also stated that it estimates the number of undocumented deaths of combatants to be approximately 95,000. These cases cannot be confirmed "due to the extreme discretion by all parties about the human losses caused by the conflict and due to the difficulty of communication in Syria," the group stated.

In contrast, SNHR claims that the number of women and children killed in the conflict is almost double the figure provided by the SOHR. SNHR said a total of 40,000 women and children - 20,000 each - were killed in Syria between the start of the war in March 2011 and the end of October 2015. It also blamed the Assad regime for the vast majority of the deaths.

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus, on 21 August, 2013.

On the other hand, a report released by the Syrian Center for Policy Research on Feb. 11 puts the total death toll at 470,000, with around 1.9 million Syrians having suffered injuries at some point during the war. If accurate, this means that 11.5 percent of Syria’s total population has either been killed or wounded in the conflict. It claims that 400,000 of these deaths were due to violence, while 70,000 died due to poor supplies and conditions. Furthermore, the report states that life expectancy in Syria has dropped from 70 years in 2010, to 55 years in 2015. In the same period, Syria’s mortality rate increased from 4.4 deaths per 1,000 people to 10.9 deaths per 1,000 people.

Notably, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month accused Russia and the Assad regime of causing 400,000 deaths in Syria. "Russia must be held accountable for the people it has killed within Syria's borders. By cooperating with the regime, the number of people they have killed has reached 400,000," Erdogan said during a visit to Senegal on Feb. 5.

Others put the toll much lower, with data provided by the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) from Sept. 9, 2015 documenting 200,000 deaths, including those of 85,404 civilians. The last figure released by the UN in Aug. 17, 2015 puts the death toll at 250,000, but it must be noted that the UN stopped collecting data on the death toll as early as January 2014, with UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville explaining the decision as being due to the inability to verify "source material." In an article published by Foreign Policy on Jan. 13, 2016, US State Department spokesman John Kirby was cited as saying that the UN’s inability to publish a reliable death toll "only underscores the depths to which the crisis has plunged."

An aid convoy of Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UN drives through the rebel held besieged city of Douma towards the besieged town of Kafr Batna to deliver aid, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria February 23, 2016.

SOHR, SNHR, VDC, and the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research were among the sources being checked by the San Francisco-based Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which was contracted by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in February 2012 to come up with a reliable estimate. By August 2014, Pillay cancelled the contract due to a lack of confidence in the accuracy of the data being provided by the groups, all of whom rely on sources on the ground.

While various groups provide fluctuating estimates of the death toll, most do not consider the deaths that have occurred, or are likely to occur, as an indirect consequence of the war. Recently there has been an increase in the number of attacks targeting health facilities and medical workers. According to a report released by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in December, 2015 saw the number of attacks on hospitals in Syria peak, with at least 112 cases documented. PHR director Widney Brown in the report blamed the Assad regime and Russian forces for most of the attacks, saying that they have been "relentlessly attacking medical facilities in violation of international law and in defiance of any respect for humanity." In total, between March 2011 and the end of December 2015, there were 346 attacks on 246 separate facilities, 315 of which were carried out by the Assad regime or Russian forces, PHR said. In addition to that, PHR said that 705 medical personnel were killed in the same period, 667 of whom were killed by the Assad regime and its allies. Brown was further cited as saying that the targeting of the health system has "compounded the crisis, caused many medical personnel to flee, and prevented countless civilians from getting treated."

In another report published by PHR in November 2015, the rights group said that over 95 percent of doctors in Aleppo had fled due to systematic attacks, with two-thirds of the city’s hospitals no longer functioning. "Although the city’s population has decreased to approximately 300,000 residents, nearly a quarter of what it was in 2010, there is now approximately one doctor for every 7,000 residents compared to one doctor for every 800 residents in 2010," a report by the group said.

In Idlib, hospitals have reportedly started going underground to protect patients and staff from increasing bombardment by Russian and regime warplanes. Pharmacist Amer al Salloumm told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency that the humid conditions underground are not ideal for storing medicines and fuel for electricity generators is insufficient. Save the Children published a report in 2014 in which it claimed that 200,000 people had died in Syria since the war began due to being unable to access necessary health care, while pulmonologist Dr Zaher Sahloul, the president of the Chicago-based Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), in the same year estimated the death toll from untreated chronic diseases to be 300,000.

People carry medical supplies found under the rubble of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016.

Among other, perhaps more longer-lasting factors affecting the mortality rate, is the dire economic situation Syria now finds itself in due to the war. The Syrian Center for Policy Research noted that the war had caused $255 billion in losses to the Syrian economy, triggering mass unemployment with around 13.8 million people in Syria losing their source of income and a 53 percent increase in consumer prices."Prices in conflict zones and besieged areas are much higher than elsewhere in the country and this boosts profit margins for war traders who monopolise the markets of these regions," the group said, adding "the common characteristics across all regions are lack of security, the allocation of all resources to the fighting, the creation of violence-related job opportunities and imposition of authority by force."

Furthermore, in 2015, poverty increased by 85 percent as Syria's population shrank by 21 percent. Over 4 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad, where they are often exploited and exposed to dangers such as death at sea. Combined with millions who have fled their homes but remain in Syria, around half of the country's population has been displaced.

Also unknown is the fate of thousands of missing people who were kidnapped by the regime. SNHR last year collected the names of at least 115,000 people, including women and children, who are being held in arbitrary detention in Syria. The rights group, however, estimates the real figure to be more than 200,000, 99 percent of whom are being held by the regime.

Amnesty International condemned the Assad regime in a report released in November 2015, saying that enforced disappearances "were perpetrated as part of an organised attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic." The report quoted Salam Othman, who was forcibly held between 2011 and 2014. He said that people in the prisons “would die and then be replaced," while many detainees became “hysterical and lost their minds." Relatives had to go to middlemen to seek details about detainees such as their location or whether they are alive in exchange for bribes because they feared that something could happen to them if they made an official enquiry, Amnesty said. The bribes may be from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, compelling some families to sell their homes to afford the sums demanded.

In late 2015, Human Rights Watch obtained over 50,000 photographs from a regime defector, identified only as "Caesar," of at least 6,786 dead bodies of people who had been kidnapped and tortured to death inside regime prisons.

The number of missing people who have died is something that will only truly be known after the war ends.Yet, even if the proposed transition period to bring about a political solution to the Syrian conflict goes according to plan, the death toll is likely to continue rising for many years afterwards due to the indirect consequences of a war that has crippled the country to its core and left millions in urgent need of aid to survive.

Author: Ertan Karpazli