Cartoon by Glenn McCoy
How Syria’s Death Toll Is Lost in the Fog of War
The New York Times: 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, leveling entire neighborhoods. Last weekend, dozens of people died in a suspected chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.
American-led forces bombed the Islamic State 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.
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,” Mr. 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 >>>