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Counting the uncounted death toll in Syria

The brutality of Syria's war has made it difficult to ensure accountability — a basic requirement of peace — such as keeping an accurate death toll.

The destruction in a once-thriving farm town in Syria's Idlib province after government shelling in 2012
The destruction in a once-thriving farm town in Syria's Idlib province after government shelling in 2012 (AN/Freedom House)

GENEVA (AN) — The brutality of Syria's war has made it difficult to ensure accountability — a basic requirement of peace — such as keeping an accurate death toll. If the difficulties have to do with inhumanity and politics, the answers may come more from the realms of data and science.

The number of people killed in Syria is now commonly assessed at more than a half-million. That accounts for deaths since the 2011 peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad's government spiraled into a cyclone of death and destruction and the world's most complex humanitarian crisis.

"Recording lives lost through conflict in the chaos of fighting is extremely challenging, and despite careful and systematic assembly, the existing data are convenience samples," researchers and statisticians Megan Price, Anita Gohdes and Patrick Ball wrote in a 2015 academic paper on the difficulties of monitoring deaths from the Syrian war, published by the Royal Statistical Society.

"Though far from convenient to collect, the data represent what is observable — which is an unknown subset of the full population of conflict‐related violence in Syria," they wrote.

For such numbers, news media outlets have often cited the work of international organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor.

"And the most important thing to remember about any number is this: it's not a number; it's people."

Based on its sources and contacts within Syria, the Observatory said in March about 511,000 people died in the Syrian war — including 106,390 civilians, among them 19,811 children and 12,513 women.

Of that number, 350,000 were victims whose identities were known. Some 85% of the dead, the Observatory said, were killed by the Syrian government's forces and its allies, mainly Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah movement.

Undercounting the dead

That puts the death toll above 2% of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million. But the real number of people killed probably is 100,000 more than the Observatory was able to document in part because of the "extreme secrecy" about the number of casualties on all sides and difficulty of reaching some remote areas in Syria, the Observatory said in a statement posted in March.

In August 2014, the U.N.'s human rights office released its last precise figure on the Syrian death toll. It had commissioned the Human Rights Data Analysis Group to estimate the number. The group found 191,369 documented, identifiable people killed in Syria between March 2011 and April 2014.

That figure represented the first time OHCHR had updated the death toll since July 2013, when it said it had documented more than 100,000 killed — a reflection of the brutality of Syria's conflict, which had metastasized by then into a complex war with various factions fighting against each other. It also reflected the al-Qaida-breakaway Islamic State group's surge in deadly attacks against rival militant groups, Western-backed Syrian rebels and Kurdish militiamen in northern Syria.

U.N. human rights officials said the new figures probably underestimated the real total number of people killed, based on figures from the Observatory, the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian government.

"It's an indicative number, based on very, very precise data of individual killings," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N.'s human rights office, said in announcing the figures in 2014.

"And the most important thing to remember about any number is this: it's not a number; it's people," he emphasized. "And people are dying every single day."

A difficult hurdle to justice

Earlier in January 2014, the U.N.'s human rights office announced it had stopped updating the death toll. It blamed the organization's lack of access in Syria and inability to verify others' source material. It also said that it would not endorse anyone else's count.

“It was always a very difficult figure,” Colville said in answer to a question from The Associated Press. “It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate. And it reached a point where we felt we could no longer cross that line. So for the time being, we’re not updating those figures.”

He said initially there were six different figures given by international organizations in the region. “Over time, they’ve diminished in number,” he said. “For the past year or so, it’s been down to two or a maximum of three, and we simply didn’t feel that it was possible for us to continue in the same way.”

But in April 2016, the U.N.'s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, put the death toll at 400,000. He told reporters the figure represented his own unrefined estimate, based on earlier figures that 250,000 had been killed, combined with fresh reports of violence, according to a U.N. transcript of his press stakeout in Geneva.

"If you want to make an estimate about how many people disappeared, how many wounded people had died, how many secondary lives were lost, in other words, after an incident or after a conflict due to lack of medical support, I am afraid we will not be far away, and I hope I am totally wrong about the 400,000 figure," said de Mistura.

"I don’t have any proof of it, and I do not think that anyone can prove anymore that they are 250,000," he said. "So that is my modest reply without being, unfortunately, capable of giving a mathematical certitude, but I am afraid it cannot be 250,000 anymore."

Finding solutions

Megan Price, executive director of the California-based Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which supports the work of other organizations like the U.N.'s human rights office, said the job of data scientists is to estimate what they don't know.

For analytical methods, she said, they rely primarily on two "classes" of methods: records linkage, which involves dealing with multiple accounts of the same event, and multiple systems estimation, which is a statistical tool also used with environmental and public health research.

For their work of preparing the Syrian death toll figures between 2012 and 2014, the U.N. provided four different lists of named victims that contained over 400,000 aggregated records with a lot of duplication.

"And this is why we start with a record linkage problem, because we need to identify those multiple records that refer to the same individuals," she said. But sometimes there are a few records that appear to be similar to a lot of other records, and those "data clusters" must be sorted out through database duplication work.

"Our substantive question is, 'How many people have been killed in Syria?' which is not the same question," she said in a 2016 keynote talk uploaded in a PyData video. "Because there's whole other step we have to take using multiple systems estimation to build from what we know and can observe to estimate what we don't know to actually be able to answer this question."

Removing the scourge of war

In the past two years, the Syrian government backed by Russia laid siege to residential areas of Aleppo and other opposition-controlled areas, and the United States, Britain and France launched retaliatory strikes against Syrian targets over chemical attacks. There also have been U.S.-led bombings of the Islamic State group in eastern Syria and catastrophic attacks by armed groups.

The United States and other nations registered a note of protest and outrage in May over Syria's month-long rotating presidency of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament — the international organization that negotiated the 21-year-old Chemical Weapons Convention.

They said Assad’s government lacks both the credibility and moral authority to lead the U.N.-hosted organization that serves as the world’s foremost negotiating forum on disarmament. The U.S. delegation staged a protest walkout and British diplomats said it was well documented that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons in the war.

The United Nations has blamed four chemical weapons attacks on the Syrian government and a fifth on the Islamic State group. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, organized a fact-finding mission to investigate an attack in April. Dozens of Syrians were found choked to death in their homes in the rebel-held suburb of Douma, east of the Syrian capital Damascus.

"The fog of war is a convenient screen for those who commit mass violence, and even more so for those who apologize for the perpetrators," Patrick Ball, the director of research at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, wrote in an October 2016 Foreign Policy article.

"But careful documentation, meticulous forensic investigation, and rigorous statistics can help us pierce the fog to understand how violence works in conflict," he said. "Perhaps most importantly, real facts enable meaningful accountability, from historical memory to war crimes trials."

In May, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres led off a major push to cut arms stockpiles and eliminate warmongering worldwide. At the University of Geneva, he launched his campaign for global disarmament to scrap nuclear arsenals and other weapons that could lead to catastrophic mistakes.

Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and ex-head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reminded everyone that the Charter of the United Nations — as an international organization founded at the end of World War II — specified one of its key missions was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

“The United Nations was created with the goal of eliminating war as an instrument of foreign policy,” Guterres said. “But seven decades on, our world is as dangerous as it has ever been.”