Monday, July 02, 2012

Disinformation - Casualty Figures

Every Sunday we have committed ourselves to dealing with just one media disinformation issue. Syria has become a maelstrom of unsubstantiated press stories. Today’s report is on the underlying question of the credibility of the casualty figures issued each day.

Mass Burial. SOTT.

The numbers of casualties reported from different sources covering the conflict in Syria have clear discrepancies. The BBC study on this matter pointed to the differences between the numbers reported by the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) and those of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).  Similarly the UN approximations are erratic and infrequent and UNHCR has stopped issuing casualty figures altogether. Others have begun to express concern about the way SOHR compiles its figures. The NCF team thought it would be interesting to try and verify the credibility of the most commonly used sources of casualty figures.

We gathered casualty figures for Thursday 28th June from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Violations Documenting Centre (VDC), Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) (the latter matched the figures given to us by a source working with the Free Syrian Army).

The following casualty figures for Thursday do not include government deaths:

(a government source)

NCF Note: The above are all opposition sources or sources sympathetic to the opposition with the exception of SANA which is government.

Seeking the truth

Methods by which these figures are compiled differ significantly. For instance:

VDC distinguishes between “martyrs” (both civilians and non-civilians) and government fatalities. SOHR distinguishes more clearly between categories in its lists of “martyrs” (and has started to specify more often whether they are fighters or civilians) and draw a clear distinction with government fatalities. The SOHR has the lowest number of “martyr” casualties and the highest number of government casualties by far. The LCC do not mention the deaths of government forces and their “martyrs” casualties are often the highest.

Looking at it from the Syrian angle
NCF sources often talk about the inaccurate and poorly substantiated reporting of casualties. One source, an NCF member known to many of you but whom we will not name who's family lives in Dera’a, has had four members of his family killed, five kidnapped, and many beaten since the conflict in Syria started in 2011. He says that after careful checking of every available source, he found no records of the killings. One of the deaths at least should have been recorded, as his cousin was killed by armed militiamen in front of her children. She was singled out because she was from the Shia minority and had married a Sunni. She was sixty years old but her adult children were with her and she begged for their lives which were spared but she was shot and bled to death. In another instance our NCF member tells us that his 24 year old nephew and cousin were returning from work in a car with a driver. The driver was shot by sniper and abandoned the car. Both his nephew and cousin were then targeted at leisure. The cousin died whilst the nephew survived with a shoulder wound. The sniper was firing from a building site in rebel held territory. Such stories are very common, with most of the people the NCF has talked to saying that anyone who claims to have accurate casualty figures are not truthful.

Note that in the above instances the killing was by rebel militia. Most killings are undoubtedly because of shelling and bombardment by the government; then there are those caught in cross fire, as well as the deliberate murder and assassination of civilians on a sectarian basis as well as the victims of suicide bombing. Clearly the preponderance of the blame lies with the government. Furthermore, greater standards of integrity are expected from the governing power in such circumstances. However, the fact that the rebels are also in some degree responsible for civilian deaths is rarely acknowledged when civilian death tolls are published. It is in the nature of modern journalism to define issues in stark black and white terms. There is an interesting article on the subject in the French press. For a rough translation of the article see the NCF Western Media blog. But it is a common phenomenon. During the Libyan civil war the rebels killed most of their prisoners in the early stages of the conflict. This went unreported although the NCF team in Libya at the time of the war witnessed the practice. Sadly the same is now true of the Syrian civil war.  Civil wars are invariably awesomely brutal.

Government casualties, on the other hand, are undoubtedly under reported. The NCF has close ties with both the Christian and Alawite communities in Syria. NCF members tell us that people living in Jebella and Latakia with relatives serving in the armed forces “receive dozens of their sons in coffins every day”. The effect is to cause further intransigence with the Alawites believing that if they lose power, “they’ll be driven from their homes and massacred”.

Analysing Thursday’s figures
The casualty figures for Thursday need looking at in more detail if we are to take an objective view. Here is how some were recorded:
Local Coordination Committees 139 dead. The LCC do not generally distinguish between civilians and rebel fighters killed. 59 in the Damascus Suburbs (most of them during the shelling in Douma), 26 in Homs, 17 in Dara’a, 15 in Deir Ezzor, 9 in Hama, 9 in Idlib and 2 in Aleppo

VDC: 113 dead. Civilians:  Idlib 3, Deir Ezzor 12, Hama 8, Damascus 3, Damascus suburbs 35, Daraa 9, Aleppo 2, Homs 21. Non-civilian: Idlib 1, Damascus suburbs 6, Damascus 1, Dara'a 8, Deir Ezzor 1, Hama 3. Government Soldiers: 1 killed in Tartous.

SOHR: More than 180 killed. 117 civilians / rebel fighters (which actually turns out to be 116 civilians and 1 rebel fighter – see following figures) and 58 government forces.  Civilians:  Idlib 5, Deir Ezzor 13, Hama 10, Dara’a 10, Aleppo 5, Homs 17, Damascus suburbs 41 (including 1 rebel fighter), Damascus 2. Rebel fighters: Dara’a 2, Homs 8, Damascus suburbs 1, Idlib 3.
Detailed Breakdown:
 At least 58 members of the Syrian armed forces were killed. A lieutenant and 3 soldiers were killed by an ambush set up for them by armed rebel forces in A'rbeen, in suburban Damascus.
2 officers and a soldier were killed when their car was attacked on the Homs-Tartous road.
A lieutenant colonel and 51 soldiers were killed during clashes in the provinces of Deir Izzor, Dera'a, Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and the Damascus suburbs.
Others: A “defected soldier” was killed in clashes in the city of Douma, in the Damascus suburbs. Another “soldier” was killed by an ambush set up for him, and other rebels, near al-Houla, in the Homs suburbs.
The bodies of 3 “defected soldiers” were found; they appear to have been killed during clashes with government forces in the town of Kafar Shams, in the Dara'a suburbs.
NCF Note: The SOHR figures are rarely internally consistent. For instance these figures open with a total for civilian deaths that includes one rebel fighter. Then there is another separate listing for rebel fighters killed that lists a total of 14 rebel fighters killed. Anomalies of this kind are common in SOHR figures.

Another perspective
All clear so far? Well it’s clear that there is more detail in the Syrian Observatory figures (which are  most commonly quoted by journalists), however their figures are quite high. We decided to do our own check. We contacted people across Syria. Feedback was confused and confusing. We decided to try being more specific and used one of our most reliable members to conduct a check on Thursday’s dead from Aleppo province (both town and country). Aleppo’s dead were comparatively modest that day and therefore (we thought) more easily checkable. Remember that figures for the dead of Aleppo from most sources are 2 dead that day, though the Syrian Observatory lists 5 dead. What feedback would we get in response to a series of phone calls to Aleppo?
Well, here’s the curiosity: Our sources reported not 2 dead, nor 5 dead, but NCF sources suggested that the figure for Aleppo that day was 17 dead. They suggested that though no more than 2 may have been killed in Aleppo town, the others were killed by bombardment that day of the provincial Aleppo towns of Azaz and Nubul.
What are we dealing with here: Unreliable NCF sources given to exaggeration and confusion in a gossip ridden, war torn environment? Or a credible record? It is impossible for you to know. Indeed it is impossible for us to know with any certainty.

The NCF believes that figures for both government armed forces dead and rebel forces dead are invariably under reported. We also believe that there are no truly reliable figures for civilians killed. That is not to say that large numbers of civilians are not killed. Clearly they are. But accurate figures based on something other than gossip are not (in our view) available. Casualty figures should at best be treated as an indication of a trend, but should never be presumed to be accurate. We will none the less continue to attempt to give you a weekly tally of casualties tomorrow and each subsequent Monday, but we will precede the record we give you with a note of the basis on which it has been calculated and a warning as to its unreliability.

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