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Syria and the facts behind the reported number of deaths

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US and European media have recently reported that the number of deaths due to the 2 year plus Syrian conflict has risen to over 100,000 (actual 100,191) with the added proviso that the overall figure may be higher. 

TV News & Press outlets ran with this information enlisting the help of Syria experts along with politicians from the US & Europe to discuss the situation on the ground. These figures along with the interviews and statements (claims) by politicians and (so called) Syrian experts slowly begin to percolate in the collective psyche, leading one to the conclusion that the Assad Government (regime) bares sole responsibility for the total current and growing number of deaths in Syria. In fact there have been numerous times when some politicians and experts have made exactly that very claim. Examples below:

John McCain:

 “I have been deeply disappointed in the Obama administration standing by and watching 80,000 thousand people being massacred,” said McCain.  reported by France 24

 

(The Statement above gives the impression at the very least, that the Syrian government is solely responsible for the 80,000 deaths and use of the term massacre is highly emotive)

 

US Secretary of State John Kerry: 

“With respect to Assad and the future of Syria, just as a matter of practical negotiation, I’d ask anybody of common sense: Can a person who has allegedly used gas against his own people; can a person who has killed more than 70,000, upwards of 100,000 people; can a person who has used artillery shells and missiles and Scuds and tanks against women and children and university students – can that person possibly be judged by any reasonable person to have the credibility and legitimacy to lead that country in the future? I think the answer to that is obvious,” said Kerry.   Full Report here CBS News

(Mr Kerry appears to be suggesting that Assad (himself), has killed between 70,000 to 100,000 Syrian people, and has alleged Assad used or has ordered the use of  Gas against his own people.)

Add to this the way that (most) Western media report on the terrible situation in Syria, adding emotive terms and constructing image comparisons to direct the viewer / reader to consider death volume and thus draw a direct relationship to themselves. Example below:

 

CNN 70,000 deaths on 2/13 /2013.

At that time, CNN tried to put the number in perspective. Sixty thousand people is roughly the population of Terre Haute, Indiana; or Cheyenne, Wyoming. It’s how many people would fit in Dodger Stadium, and it’s more than the 50,000-plus U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam.

And

Every day looks the same in Syria. Al-Assad’s forces bombard neighborhoods. Body counts are recorded by anti-government rebels and activists.

 By Ashley Fantz, CNN. The full article here:  Syria death toll probably at 70,000, U.N. human rights official says…

Whilst of course the above are mere segments of the overall CNN article,  (Please read the article), the point is that the use of emotive terms, visual aid and suggestion is what the average person uses to form opinion of any given situation, good or bad. For example in TV adverts (like the puppies in the toilet roll advert),  Newspaper headlines with often emotive or sensational statements like ( Likely worldwide computer system blackout as year 2000 nears), or from statements by respected sources (like the Kerry statement above).

Source of statement & statistics on the Syria death toll.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is a monitoring group based in the UK that has been used by most News outlets (activists report) as a main source of statement and statistics on the ongoing Syria conflict. Its latest figures suggest that over 100,191 have died to date in the conflict which started just over two years ago. What is very often omitted from media statements such as the number of deaths in Syria is the breakdown of these deaths (as reported). see below:

Civilian deaths

(FSA) Rebel Deaths

Syrian Gov Military Deaths

Unidentified Deaths

36,661

18,072

25,407

2,571

Syrian Militia Deaths

17,311

Foreign Deaths

169

Estimated Total

Estimated Total

Estimated Total

Estimated Total

36,661

18,072

42,887

2,571

The Observatory’s numbers need to be treated as estimates, the political affiliations of the group are somewhat opaque, as is the manner in which it carries out its work. But it’s one of the few sources of estimates casualties in Syria.

There is without doubt room for exaggeration and over / under estimation in the figures above, for example the number of FSA Syrian Rebel deaths at 18,072 versus the number of Syrian Military /Militia deaths at 42,887 along with the number of Civilian deaths at 36,661 will and have been questioned.

As the Christian Science Monitor points out: There have been credible reports of massacres of Shiites and Alawites, who support the Assad government in greater numbers than the country’s Sunni majority, at the hands of rebel forcesChristian Science Monitor

However as Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said:  “In war, both sides lie,”

He was citing examples of exaggerated death tolls that were not corroborated by evidence from activists,  (Syrian Observatory sources) and other cases where people died of natural causes were listed as combat deaths.  His group also said both sides were likely to have underreported their own casualties.  Mr. Abdul Rahman,  said his network relied on four men inside Syria who help to report and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground.  Source   NY Times  

 Conclusion:

Information and Statistics serve to give a picture, an overview of any given situation or conflict. However using such information as a stick against an opponent or to achieve political one-upmanship is nothing short of abusive of power.  Figures such as quoted above must only be used as a guide, an overview of the situation in Syria, Not as a means to further an agenda, any agenda (Religious, Political, or Commercial) from any side of the Syrian conflict.

Casualty counts during modern wars have become a highly politicised business. On one hand, they can help alert the outside world to the scale of violence and suffering, and the risks of conflict spreading both within a country’s borders and beyond them. On the other, as in Syria, Iraq, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, death tolls have routinely been manipulated, inflated or downplayed – a tool for the advancement of political interests.

Sharmine Narwani of the Guardian

Almost fully validates this point of view in an excellent piece titled:  What the Syrian death tolls really tell us.

It’s time to stop headlining unreliable and easily politicised casualty counts, and use them only as one of several background measures of a conflict. It’s essential too that the media help us avoid such manipulation by asking questions about reported deaths: how were these deaths verified? Are they combatants? Who killed them? How do we know this? Who benefits from these deaths? Was this a violent death or one caused by displacement? How is it even possible to count all these dead in the midst of raging conflict?

Numbers without context or solid foundations can incite and escalate a conflict, leading to even more carnage. Contemporary casualty data have been inaccurate in so many recent conflicts that it’s time to retire these numbers from the telling of the story.

 

 

A.B. For Total World View

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