Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The UN now puts the death toll in Syria at 60,000

The current struggle for Syria began in January 2011 with a few months of largely peaceful protests that were met by violent repression and then, starting roughly in March, turned into a brutal, murderous, and massively destructive civil war that has generated increasing sectarian polarization within Syria and is fueled by increasing amounts of outside aid and support for the warring forces. The civil war is now approaching its two-year mark, with no clear prospects of being settled one way or another. Since March 2011, estimates of the death toll, all of which are necessarily very approximate, have been going up steadily.  The latest attempt at a systematic assessment, in the form of a UN-sponsored study whose results were released on January 2, estimates that 60,000 people have been killed so far, overwhelmingly civilians. As Spencer Ackerman pointed out, that figure is probably too low.
The brutal truth is that no one really knows how many Syrians have died in dictator Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown: Warzone death estimates are notoriously imprecise. By its own admission, the death toll compiled by the human rights tech group Benetech, on behalf of the UN, is inaccurate. But its assessment has the virtue of specificity, a factor that preempts some of the doubts raised about mortality estimates in other warzones. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called the study "a work in progress, not a final product.”

Benetech’s report(.pdf), released on Wednesday, dives into databases of the dead compiled by six Syrian organizations — several of them tied to the rebellion, such as the Syrian Revolution General Council — and one by the Assad government. The firm sifted through over 147,000 records to identify and exclude duplicated mortality accounts. Only the “unique” accounts of “identifiable victims” fall into Benetech’s count. If the records don’t show someone’s name, date and location of death, Benetech doesn’t count it.

That data sift leads to a more precise picture of the Syrian civil war than the rougher estimates previously on offer. [....]

Benetech’s study suffers from selection bias, as its researchers concede up front. The patterns it finds cannot account for “unobserved and unidentifiable” killings. If the seven databases do not document a death, or do not document it with sufficient specificity — say, a name is only partially recorded, or a location of the death is absent — then Benetech discounts it from the study. Nor does Benetech have a means of fact-checking what’s in each dataset, as brutal wars do not lend themselves to such analytic rigor, so an element of faith is unavoidable here. Duplicated information is useful for establishing patterns in documentation of the killings, but shouldn’t be confused with a verification mechanism for the dead, nor for establishing the true statistical patterns of deaths. Accordingly, “the statistics presented in this report should be considered minimum bounds,” Benetech specifies. [....]
Of course, the war has also generated large and increasing numbers of refugees, many of whom are living in miserable conditions. The estimates I've read lately for Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries range from half a million to three-quarters of a million so far, and those numbers continue to go up.  In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people within Syria itself, with some estimates running well over a million.

The figure of (roughly) 60,000 deaths is horrifying in itself. But we can also view that death toll from a few comparative perspectives, all of which have unpleasant implications. Let's assume that Syrian civilians have been getting killed at the rate of about 30,000 per year. That's pretty awful. But in February 1982 Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad, in the course of putting down a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency against his regime, massacred 10,000-20,000 civilians in the city of Hama in less than a month (with some estimates ranging up to 30,000 or higher). And the other Ba'athist regime, the one in Iraq headed by Saddam Hussein, slaughtered between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians in just one of its many episodes of large-scale mass murder, the "Anfal" genocide campaign of 1988 in Iraqi Kurdistan. These comparisons and other bits of evidence may suggest that the murderousness of the Syrian regime is still operating within some significant restraints, both internal and external. (For example, there do seem to be plausible grounds for believing that in November 2012 the Syrian regime really was on the verge of escalating to the use of poison gas, but was deterred by outside warnings that this would mean crossing a red line. Saddam Hussein didn't face that kind of inconvenience in the 1980s.) On the other hand, that may also imply that things could still get a lot worse, especially as the regime and its supporters become convinced that they are facing total defeat.

At all events, we should bear in mind that the civil war in Syria has been going on for less than two years, and nobody really knows how much longer it will continue. It could be that either the Assad regime or the rebellion will crack within the next year or so, but a prolonged and increasingly bloody stalemate is a plausible alternative. And even if, or when, the Assad regime is decisively overthrown by the rebels—who are by no means unified themselves—that wouldn't necessarily guarantee an end to the killing and destruction. (Again, think of Iraq after 2003.)

So the prospects are not encouraging, though one can always hope for the best.

=> And speaking of Iraq, it might be worth adding one more comparative reflection. Since the political upheavals of the so-called "Arab Spring" began a few years ago, some people who think that the 2003 Iraq war was a terrible mistake and an unmitigated disaster (a position for which there are certainly good arguments, given what happened to Iraq and the Iraqis after 2003) have wondered whether these developments provide additional evidence that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime by external force was simply unnecessary.  If Saddam Hussein had just been left alone, and his regime had survived into the present decade, wouldn't some Iraqi version of the Arab Spring have led to his overthrow in a way that was less painful and costly to Iraqis, to Americans, and to everyone else?

It's hard to answer that question for certain, of course.  But based on the historical record, including the bloodbath with which Saddam Hussein crushed the national revolt against his rule after the 1991 Gulf War, I think it's possible to offer some plausible predictions.  If the Ba'ath regime headed by Saddam (or one of his psychopathic sons) had still been in control of Iraq during the past few years, and had been faced with a serious challenge to its grip on power, it's probably safe to expect that the response would have made what's happening in Syria now pale by comparison.

Would the results have been even worse than what happened in post-Saddam Iraq during the past decade?  Again, one can't say for sure, and no one should pretend otherwise, but that possibility certainly shouldn't be dismissed.  Let's even be extra-optimistic and assume that a hypothetical Iraqi Spring would have overthrown the regime. In the very best of circumstances, the death throes of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, along with the aftermath, would almost certainly have been extremely gruesome.  Does that supposition strike you as unlikely, far-fetched, or groundlessly alarmist?  Then think about what's happening in Syria today, bearing in mind that what we've seen so far may just be the beginning.

(And, of course, that best-case scenario overlooks everything else that Saddam Hussein would have been doing, between then and now, after the rapidly unraveling sanctions-and-containment system had fallen apart completely and he was out of his box.)

=>  Meanwhile, the struggle for Syria continues. The likelihood of outside military intervention, now or any time in the immediately foreseeable future, strikes me as very slim. (Of course, that doesn't include the involvement of Sunni jihadists on the side of the rebels and of small numbers of Iranian and Hizbullah fighters on the side of the regime, along with funding and arms for the warring factions from a range of sources.)  So the struggle will mostly play itself out within Syria.  It's hard to imagine any outcomes that don't look bad (for two plausible speculative overviews, out of many possible examples, see here & here), but I guess we'll see. And we should all be paying attention, because the outcome of this struggle will have major implications, not only for Syria itself, but across the region and beyond.

—Jeff Weintraub