As Syrian Death Toll Dips, So Does World's Attention

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Boys ride a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in Douma, near Damascus, Syria August 14, 2017.
Boys ride a bicycle near rubble of damaged buildings in Douma, near Damascus, Syria August 14, 2017.Credit: BASSAM KHABIEH/REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

How many people have been killed in the Syrian civil war? It depends whom you ask – and who’s doing the counting. The UN estimate is that up to April of last year, about 400,000 people have died, including civilians, combatants in support of President Bashar Assad’s regime and militia members. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure between 331,000 and 475,000, while the Syrian Center for Policy Research said that as of February 2016, 470,000 people had lost their lives in the conflict.

Fatality tables from various sources show that the clear majority of those killed – more than two-thirds -- have been from the ranks of combatants, but in addition about 100,000 to 120,000 civilians, including women, children and the elderly, have also been slain. Despite these shocking numbers, which should have prompted aggressive international intervention in the early stages of the war, the world powers have at most made do with unsuccessful shipments of food and cash grants to humanitarian organizations and to the countries hosting the millions of Syrian refugees.

Credit: AFP / Delil souleiman

When the numbers of dead hit the hundreds of thousands, the major powers discovered that they could suffice with expressing shock and dismay, particularly at their major surprise at the scope of the killing. As in any civil war, the charts tracking the fatalities rose gradually. In March 2011, the Syrian regime “sufficed” with killing dozens of demonstrators and rebels on a daily basis, but the numbers grew as the war expanded, until the killing reached its peak in the period of 2012 and 2013, when the highest numbers from all sides in the conflict were recorded.

Over the last six months, the pace of the killing seems to have declined, and compared to the large numbers in prior years, estimates do indicate a dramatic change in the number of deaths. It behooves us, however, to relate to this with some caution.

So for example in 2016, which ended with the recapture by Assad’s forces of Aleppo, 13,617 civilians were killed, a figure nearly identical to that of the year before. By contrast, in the first half of this year, “only” about 5,600 civilians were killed. But there are more than four months left to the year and if we assume, without any really proper basis, that the pace of the killing for 2017 as a whole will remain the same as it was during the first six months, the numbers would decline to 11,000 – about 2,000 less than in 2015 and 2016.

As for the number of combatants killed this year, the change is expected to be much more dramatic. The years 2015 and 2016 each saw about 35,000 combatants slain. Although in the first half of 2017 about 22,000 were killed (by conservatives estimates), the figures for the entire year 2017 are expected to be lower than prior years as the areas of fighting have shrunk, and particularly due to efforts to establish safe zones in wide swaths of the country. But these projections are estimates that can’t take surprises into account, such as the nature of the war in the Idlib region or the number of civilians that could be killed in fighting over the city of Raqqa.

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter sit as medics treat his comrades injured by sniper fired by Islamic State militants in a field hospital in Raqqa, Syria June 28, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The most substantial contribution to reducing the number of dead is attributed to the efforts by the Russian cease-fire center at the Hamimim base in northwest Syria. Over the past year and a half, the Russians have managed to establish partial cease-fires in a number of cities and districts in which the rebels have laid down their arms or have left (such as Aleppo, Zabadani and now on the outskirts of Homs). These cease-fires have not only put a halt to the fighting, they have also enabled humanitarian aid shipments to be brought in, easing the plight of the civilian population.

Another aspect of the recent fighting has been its focus on strategic locations, in contrast to the all-encompassing approach that characterized the early stages of the conflict. The current situation is marked by the scattered location of the fronts and the initial effort to take control of as many cities and as much territory as possible, along with an absence of coordination among rebel groups and the injection of foreign forces such as Hezbollah and the Iranians. That, along with crude combat capabilities, have made civilians an easy target. It also serves a strategic goal as the killing of large numbers of civilians has been used to put down the rebellion against the regime.

Thousands of civilians killed by Russia, Western forces

The focus of the war in specific regions has created areas that are safer, but the smaller number of dead there has been offset by the numbers killed in bombing runs by Western and Russian coalition forces. Western coalition forces, according to various estimates, have killed about 2,100 civilians while Russian forces have killed about 5,300 since Russia intervened in the fighting in September 2015. Most of those killed in these attacks are said to have belonged to ISIS or the Nusra Front, but it’s difficult to rely on this because it’s in the interest of each side to report high numbers of ISIS dead to help quell the anger among civilians about the number of civilians killed.

Despite the unfathomable casualty figures, it’s difficult for Syrians and Syrian organizations to translate this into stepped-up diplomatic activity. One reason is the deep differences between the militias and the Syrian regime, and among the militias themselves. The Assad regime is not moved by casualty figures for civilians or soldiers. But the members of the militias measure their success not only by the number of square kilometers they capture, but also by a demonstration of their killing prowess.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces calls his comrades during the fighting with Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria August 14, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

It also appears that the global media have reached saturation when it comes to reports of fighting and the numbers killed in Syria. After the big, “interesting” battles, such as the one for control of Aleppo, it’s hard to interest viewers and readers in local fighting in villages and towns whose names are unfamiliar to them, even though these smaller battles are responsible for the largest numbers of civilian deaths.

The law of large numbers is also at work when it comes to the media, which may report a few dead a day even when in reality there are dozens, as they get swallowed up in the huge total. This media boredom, which also marked coverage of the Iraq war after the country was captured in 2003, also affects coverage of the plight of Syrian refugees, whose numbers are estimated in the millions. After the major wave of refugees that flooded Europe last year and the public reaction to it, which prompted the surprising agreement on the subject between the European Union and Turkey, the issue has shifted to the responsibility of immigration and resettlement authorities in each individual country. The media will apparently only renew its interest in the refugees when a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war appears in the offing.

With the waning of media interest, international pressure has naturally lessened, particularly when the handling of the crisis is exclusively in the hands of Russia, meaning the West is not a factor in the diplomatic equation. In the process, consciousness about those killed in the civil war and those who have fled Syria also wanes, similar to what occurred with the victims of the slaughter in Rwanda, Darfur and Somalia. The situation is tragic, but it’s not interesting.

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