Why the numbers game doesn’t add up in the killing fields of Syria

Are the dead from Assad's army even counted in these statistics?

Syrian teenagers pose next to their checkpoint
Syrian teenagers pose next to their checkpoint

Notice how Syria’s civil war casualty figures shot up by 15,000 overnight last week? The world’s press had happily settled into the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” statistic of 45,000 dead in almost three years.

But then at New Year’s the UN’s Human Rights Commission tells the world that the real figure is close to 60,000. Come again? Did 15,000 Syrians climb into a mass grave on 1 January, 2013?

First, however, a health warning. No-one disputes the carnage in Syria. But figuring out just how many souls die in a civil war – and whose “side” they were on when they expired – is a mighty dangerous game.

News desks beware, for history suggests that the “bad guy” must always be held responsible for the greatest number of deaths – at least in the Middle East – and that civilians who become “fighters” end up in civilian death lists, while men and women killed by the “good guys” don’t get on lists at all. It’s not just a question of lies, damned lies and statistics; in a war, each side produces its own rules for the dead. And none of them tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Government dead

For example, how many Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen, pro-government supporters and civilian sympathisers are counted among the statistics. SANA, the Syrian government news agency, once spoke of 2,000 dead among Assad’s military. Assad’s own officers suggested to me in Damascus last year that this figure had reached at least 6,000. I suspect it may be nearer to 10,000 pro-Assad soldiers who have now been killed. So does this mean that at least one sixth of the UN figures actually comprise the army which is accused by the West of committing atrocities? And if this is true, how many more “pro-Assad” civilians should be added to the list; hundreds of recent victims of the Syrian war have been Christians – who could scarcely rank among the insurgents. Does this account for one figure, which puts pro-government dead as more than 13,000?

One reason, of course, why the pro-opposition “Syrian Observatory” suspects the UN figure is inflated, is that the ladies and gentlemen of the Human Rights Commission want to heap more coals of derision upon the slumbering – and certainly impotent – UN Security Council. The UN, after all, is not a committee of wise men, but a monumental political beast, not unlike a giant donkey. Give it the carrot of a bigger mass grave and it might plod a little faster.

So how many rebels have been killed in Syria? We are told that almost 5,500 military defectors are among the dead. So are 372 Palestinians, killed in inter-Palestinian fighting around the largest refugee camp in Damascus.

Who to count?

It’s sobering to remember how we have wrestled with the same kind of statistics in the past. In “our” Iraq war from 2003-2009 – note how we assume the conflict ended when “we” abandoned the country, although another 4,500 Iraqis were killed in 2012 alone – every blue-eyed Western casualty was meticulously listed. But the Western occupation authorities went along with General Tommy Franks’ obscene invention about the Iraqi dead, that “we don’t do body counts”. The Pentagon was later revealed to have kept a list of civilian dead up to 2005 – the total was 25,902 – but these figures were slyly contrived. They listed only civilians killed by insurgents: unarmed Iraqis killed by Western military forces found no place in the Pentagon’s figures.

But you can go further back. Armenians claim – with good reason – that a million and a half of their people were victims of the 1915 Turkish genocide. But the Turks still peddle the myth that these figures were falsified, and that Armenians died in the “chaos” of internal conflict during the First World War.

And what about the Second World War? Did 40 million die, as we used to believe, or was it 70 million (more likely if you include the Sino-Japanese war)? Against this hecatomb, a 15,000 discrepancy in the killing fields of Syria is hardly surprising.

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