The victims of the conflict : who’s killing who?
First of all, how are the statistics concerning the number of victims collected? Are they reliable?
They constitute an army on the ground : armed not with weapons but with pens, notebooks, smartphones or cameras. They collect, register, photograph. In constant danger, in the middle of bombarded civilian zones, they often lose their lives, to be replaced by other volunteers. They work for different organizations: the Violations Documentation Center*, created at Douma in Syria in April 2011 by Razan Zaitouneh**, a lawyer and human rights activist (VDC: http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/), the Syrian Network for Human rights, created in June of the same year (SN4HR: http://sn4hr.org), the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights based in London (OSDH: http://www.syriahr.com/en/) and others.
The OSDH, who communicates little information on its methodology, affirms disposing of a rather vast network of correspondants all over Syria, while the VDC and the SNHR work only in zones controlled by the rebellion. The methodology of these two organisms consists in sending volunteers on site immediately after an attack to register the number of victims and the circumstances of their death. They inquire at hospitals and question Imams who pronounce funeral rites. These numerous citizen-journalists across the country are able to cross-check data from different sources.
Example of data collected by VDC:
|Name||Province||Area \ Place of birth||Sex||Status||Date of death|
All sorts of information is collected: circumstances, identification of arms, origin of the attacks, etc. Civilians must be distinguished from combatants. See the very precise questionnaire used by the members of this organisation***.
The impossibility of an exact count…
We must note that victims in the zones controlled by the regime as well as those controlled by Daech are not included in the statistics as these territories are difficult to penetrate and neither IS nor the regime communicate this information. Only the OSDH provides a global figure for the number of victims of all parties – a figure whose reliability cannot be evaluated.
In spite of these limitations, the UN has affirmed the reliability of these organizations and has often relied on them itself to estimate the number of casualties. However, in April 2014 the UN decided to stop the counting, as it had become impossible to produce a real figure due to the complexity of the situation on the ground and the difficulties in the collection of data. The UN maintains the figure of 260,000 deaths, unchanged for over a year…The figures which circulate are most often those of OSDH. According to the newspaper Le Monde of August 8, 2016, the NGO announced the figure of 292,817 deaths as of July 31, 2016 : 84,472 civilians, 50,548 insurgents including Kurdish combatants, 49,547 djihadists, 104,656 members of the loyalist forces of which 57,909 were soldiers. The organism announced 9,000 additional deaths on September 13, bringing the total number to 300,000 victims, but it estimates that the number is larger in reality. The impossibility of an exact count obliges us to remain cautious.
We must just retain an order of magnitude. Unofficially, among UN organizations, the figure of 300,000 victims is considered realistic.
Exact statistics will certainly be known after the war. It must include all indirect casualties due to the lack of food and medical care, as well as those disappeared, for the most part persons arrested by the forces or secret services of the regime. The local councils who manage the towns have also kept statistics that will one day be a great help in establishing the truth.
* The abbreviations are in English
** Razan Zaitouneh was abducted in Douma in December 2013, most likely by the extremist islamist organization Jaysh al Islam. There is no news of her since that date.
***The informaton collected by these groups could be used during future trials of the authors of these atrocities and for the establishment of a memorial for the victims of the repression and the war in Syria.
Who is responsable for the death of civilians and who is killing who?
The proportions vary from source to source, but they all agree that the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths can be attributed to the Syrian regime. See the data collected by the SNHR who established the chart of civilian victims living in zones controlled by the rebellion below. It covers the period from March 2011 to October 2016, five years of conflict. It is most certainly incomplete due to the difficulties enumerated above, and note that it does not include civilian victims on the side of the loyalist forces. Here again we are obliged to be cautious. In any case, the predominance of the responsabillity of governmental forces and their allies in the death toll of the war is evident.
The SNHR also produces a monthly count. In August 2016, it tallied 1,521 civilians killed (far from the 9,000 accounted for by OSDH, because it only takes into account those victims noted by the organization). 1,082 were killed by the forces of the regime (or of Russia:189). The remaining victims were killed by IS (148), and other rebel groups (179). In addtion are those killed by Kurdish groups and other brigades. The SNHR declares that for that month there were considerable difficulties in the collection of data in the specific territory covered. This means that the figures are higher and that the distribution among the authors of the killings may vary. However, whatever the figures or the organiszations collecting the data, the Syrian regime is invariably identified as the one principally responsable for death and destruction.
This fact is not surprising. With its allies, the Syrian regime has considerable supremacy in military assets. No other group involved in ground combat is doted with aviation. According to VDC, more than a third of the civilian victims of August 2016 were killed by air attacks.** The incessant bombing of residential zones since the beginning of the bombarding in Summer 2012 has not only resulted in a great number of civilian victims, but has deprived the population of shelter, economic ressources and medical care (hospitals are deliberately targeted as well as economic infrastructures and cultivated fields at harvest time) all leading to a number of indirect casualties which cannot be evaluated. A UN communiqué of September 6, 2016 concerning the bombing of Aleppo by Syrian and Russian aviation notes : ” While many lose their lives under the bombs, others die from the lack of medical structures – the result of the destruction by pro-governmenal forces of 20 hospitals and clinics in the region of Aleppo alone since the beginning of the year.“*
We know from the Caesar Report that at least 11,000 people have died under torture (the photos exist to corroborate this fact: see Opération Caesar by Garance Le Caisne, Stock, 2015). This report was instructed by international experts (medical examiners, public prosecutors…). Among them, David Crane, former chief prosecutor for the special court of Sierra Leone, affirmed that the images of the bodies of the starved and tortured were only comparable to those of Auschwitz. He added “as prosecutors we rarely have acces to proof of crimes against humanity so direct and precise” and that these documents only represented “the visible part of the iceberg because they concern only three detention centers and there are fifty” in all of Syria.
More recent reports have pointed out possible crimes in the prison of Sednaya, 30 kilometers from Damascus. Between 5,000 and 13,000 prisoners were hung between September 2011 and December 2015. For Amnesty International the prison can be likened to a “human slaughterhouse”. Read the report here.
Over 5 million refugees*
Why do they leave? …”They flee Daech”…
We have all heard this phrase in conversations or in the media (see a reportage on France 2 concerning the exploitation of Syrian children in Turkey, June 21, 2016).
Beacause of the omnipresence of the terrorist organization and its exactions in the media and in the collective mentality, for many people its seems evident that the Syrians flee only to escape from Daech. Many non-rigorous journalists nourish this simplistic explanation. In fact, this idea serves the interests of the leaders of the regime and lets them get off easily.
A few figures and dates allow to rectify the situation. The djihadi group IS became established in Syria in April 2013, but it did not exercise destructive power on the population until Summer 2014, after the siege of Mossoul in Iraq, which allowed the group to consolidate its power in the zone under its control between Iraq and Syria. However, at the end of 2013, the UNHCR had already registered 2,5 million refugees – refugees who had fled for reasons which had little to do with Daech.
The reasons these Syrians had fled were exposed in a UN report: “The deliberate targetting of civilians and the incapacity of all the actors of the conflict to protect civilians are known to be the principal causes of deplacement. Populations are more and more frequently forced to flee the closing down of services, notably the health system, and the loss of all means of subsistence.“**
Thousands of Syrians who took the road to exil this summer at the beginning of the battle of Aleppo fled for the same reasons : incessant bombing by Russian and Syrian aviation, the destruction of homes, hospitals and other infrastructures, a total lack of resources and the exorbitant prices of food.
The geographical origins of the refugees gives a clear indication of the cause of departure. Daech occupies essentially certain pockets of northeastern Syria, like Raqaa and Deir ez-Zor. The families who come from these zones flee most certainly the persecution of Daech. But those from Aleppo, Homs, Damas or Latakia leave their native towns for the above-mentioned reasons. As for young people who leave the zones controlled by the regime, they flee conscription, which is a problem for the Syrian army which is weakened and has great difficulty recruiting.
If IS is driven out of Syrian territory, we cannot expect a massive return of refugees. However, the end of the combats or the establishment of a “no-fly zone” would enable the return of a certain number of them.
*number of Syrian refugees enregistered by the HCR in Avril 2017