Death toll in Syria: numbers blurred in fog of war

Grim total of 511,000 casualties may be disputed but each death is vital to accountability

In seven years, the casualties of Syria’s civil war have grown from the first handful of protesters shot by government forces to hundreds of thousands of dead.

But as the war has dragged on, growing more diffuse and complex, many international monitoring groups have essentially stopped counting.

Even the United Nations, which released regular reports on the death toll during the first years of the war, gave its last estimate in 2016 – when it relied on 2014 data, in part – and said that it was virtually impossible to verify how many had died.

At that time, a United Nations official said 400,000 people had been killed.


But so many of the biggest moments of the war have happened since then. In the past two years, the government of President Bashar al-Assad, with Russia's help, laid siege to residential areas of Aleppo, once the country's second-largest city, and several other areas controlled by opposition groups, levelling entire neighbourhoods. Last weekend, dozens of people died in a suspected chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.

American-led forces bombed Islamic State (Isis), in large patches of eastern Syria, in strikes believed to have left thousands dead. And dozens of armed groups, including fighters backed by Iran, have continued to clash, creating a humanitarian catastrophe that the world is struggling to measure.

Historically, these numbers matter, experts say, because they can have a direct impact on policy, accountability and a global sense of urgency. The legacy of the Holocaust has become inextricably linked with the figure of six million Jews killed in Europe. The staggering death toll of the Rwandan genocide – one million Tutsis killed in 100 days – is seared into the framework of that nation’s reconciliation process.

Without a clear tally of the deaths, advocates worry that the conflict will simply grind on indefinitely, without a concerted international effort to end it.

"We know from conflicts around the world that we can't have any sustainable peace if we don't have accountability," said Anna Nolan, director of The Syria Campaign, a human rights advocacy group. "The most critical thing to understand in that situation is who is being killed and who is doing that killing, and without that information we can't expect the people involved in resolving this conflict to come to the right decisions."

Meanwhile, local monitoring groups keep the best estimates they can.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, the founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said there were "tens of incidents daily" that raise the death toll, and that monitoring was needed to one day hold perpetrators accountable for potential war crimes.

Access and verification

Despite the challenges of access and verification, he sees value in the assessment his group makes, even though he knows they are not perfect.

“This work, what we are doing, we are doing this mainly for our people, for our community, for history itself,” Ghany said. “So we are recording these reports in order to say, on this day, in 2018, these people have been killed and because of this, and in this area.”

He believes figures will be vital if peace comes to his country in establishing transitional justice.

“We don’t want to lose any one life,” he said.

The last comprehensive number widely accepted internationally – 470,000 dead – was issued by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research in 2016. The group, based in Damascus until that year, was long seen as one of the most reliable local sources because it was not affiliated with the government or aligned with any opposition group.

But now, just getting a death certificate is problematic in Syria, let alone a collective tally of the dead, said Panos Moumtzis, a United Nations assistant secretary general and regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Syrian conflict. And civilians make up the largest portion of the death toll.

Since there are 18 different authorities issuing documentation, in addition to the government in Syria, Moumtzis said, many civilians fear that having a death certificate issued by the “wrong authority” could jeopardise their relatives.

“Even in death, they worry that one day if they go to declare it they will be in trouble for it,” Moumtzis said. This further complicates tracking.

Some monitoring groups are still keeping count from afar, but their numbers vary, are estimates at best, and have not been verified by international groups. These monitors work with networks of contacts in Syria and collect reports on social media and from the news to compile casualty estimates.

The most prominent of these groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said last month that at least 511,000 people had been killed in the war since March 2011. Many organisations rely on this tally as the best current assessment. The group said in March that it had identified more than 350,000 of those killed by name; the remainder were cases in which it knew deaths had occurred but did not know the victims’ names.

Civilian deaths

Another group, the Violations Documentation Centre, which is linked to opposition groups, has a much lower estimate, tallying 188,026 conflict-related deaths from mid-March 2011 until March 2018. But the organisation counts just civilian deaths and "takes a considerable amount of details before entering a name on to our database", Mona Zeineddine, a member of the group, said by email.

Ghany of the Syrian Network for Human Rights said he used tactics similar to those of the Syrian observatory to track deaths, but his group counts only civilians. In late March, the network said 217,764 civilians had been killed since the beginning of the war.

The complexity of the conflict, the lack of direct access to conflict areas, and the ethnic and political divisions have made accurate counting an immensely challenging task, he said.

“In most of the incidents, we are unable to visit the places, and in Syria everyday we have tens of violations,” Ghany said. “Each year has its own challenges and difficulties, and when you overcome one challenge, we face another.”

Members of his group have been detained, and many now live outside Syria. The biggest challenge he now faces is apathy from those on the ground, as the protracted conflict continues.

“The people feel now that there is no hope and no need for all of this human rights work and this human rights documentation,” Ghany said. “Because no one is listening to what we are doing.”

Most international experts monitoring the conflict use a general figure of more than 500,000 deaths, but acknowledge that changing conditions and restricted access make it impossible to know. Many believe it could be higher.

Based on that estimate, which takes into account both civilian and combatant deaths, about 2.33 per cent of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million has been killed.

Tally of figures

At the start of the conflict, many journalists and diplomats had relied on the numbers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which worked with partners on the ground to tally figures. But the United Nations stopped officially counting in 2014, as the war intensified and became more complex.

"It was always a very difficult figure," spokesman Rupert Colville said at the time. "It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate."

In early 2016, the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he believed an estimated 400,000 people had been killed. But de Mistura described it as an unrefined estimate based on earlier figures combined with recent reports of violence.

Now, most official communications from the United Nations simply cite “hundreds of thousands killed”.

While the numbers vary, all of the groups agree on two things: that the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of the civilian deaths, and that calculating the toll is challenging.

“We often talk about these numbers, whether it’s 400,000 or 500,000, but it’s also about the trauma that is behind each of these numbers,” said Moumtzis of the United Nations. “It has become almost mechanical, the number.”

He added: "It's really just a cold figure, but behind it are lives." – New York Times