Wednesday, July 31, 2013


We issue our regular monthly report on Syrian war dead from the NCF's chief Syria analyst, Shree Wood. We record just under 3,500 as having been killed in the last month we have data for (June) of whom just under 2,000 were combatants:

The line graph below is a timeline which helps to depict the rise and decline in the death figures over the last 12 months.

The NCF war dead total for the past year stands at 75,816. The total breaks down as follows:

July 2012 – June 2013

Much has been made of figures for war dead issued by the United Nations. UN statements fail to distinguish properly between civilian dead and combatants killed, and no full background analysis is available from the UN. By way of example, they only issue graphs for the number of dead, without the specific monthly totals that we deem essential. They take the highest available figure, thus even if just one source names a person as having been killed, they count that as a civilian death. Arguably that is fine, however we view the UN calculations as suspect because they do not include properly displayed background data as to where deaths occur – or indeed any real details of any kind. We will be making available all our background data over the coming couple of days, as is our practice. Background data thus far for the current period is on this link to the NCF website where a weekly breakdown of the figures according to provinces is currently being made available and will be complete within a day or two:

The methodology for data collection for the latest figures for May and June 2013 has been revised following feedback from NCF members. The NCF will resource information and data from any well documented site that remains reasonably consistent with its data, i.e. the VDC, Syrian Shuhada, SyrianObservatory, LCC and Damascus Centre for Human Rights. We distinguish between combatants and civilians and then we total civilian dead, rebel and government figures to tally up a monthly figure. By presenting the figures in the form of bar and line graphs, the NCF hopes to demonstrate the pattern of fighting and deaths in in Syria over a period of a year.

The United Nations claims around 100,000 have been killed since the conflict first began with deaths now averaging over 5,000 per month; which is true. Note that this means more than 5,000 per month (including combatants) averaged over the entire period. What the UN fails to point out is that civilian deaths are falling fairly substantially in recent months – whereas the deaths for combatants (rebel and government fighters) remain reasonably constant. There may be many reasons for the fall in numbers of civilian dead. Arguably this may be because so many civilians have fled from the areas in which the worst fighting has occurred and become refugees (not all refugees have been displaced across international boundaries and numbers of refugees displaced within Syria are impossible to gauge). Another factor may be that rebel control of some areas is being cemented whilst similarly government control of other areas is being cemented and the number of areas being fought over at any one time is fewer. For whatever reason, civilian deaths are at their lowest total since the NCF began making these calculations.

It should be stressed that the NCF regularly revises the basis on which it calculates figures in an attempt to give you the best available data. Currently our figures are calculated on a weekly basis prior to compiling the monthly data on the following basis.

For government dead we use the figures from Syrian Observatory and from Shuhada (other sources do not attempt to record numbers for government dead). We take an average of the two figures if the Shuhada figure is lower than the Observatory figure. If the Shuhada figure is higher than the Observatory figure we take the Shuhada figure and do not average the figures. This is because the Shuhada figures are better documented than the Observatory figures.

For rebel dead we take an average of the VDC figure and the Observatory figure (Shuhada does not issue figures for rebel dead whereas VDC does not issue figures for government dead) – but only if the Observatory figure is higher than the VDC figure. If the VDC figure is higher than the Observatory figure we take the VDC figure (again because VDC figures are better documented than Observatory figures). We have sometimes also looked at Sana figures for rebel dead but currently these are not clear enough to use.

For civilian dead we use figures from Syrian Observatory, VDC, Damascus Centre, LCC, and Shuhada. For the Damascus Centre, LCC and Shuhada we first subtract the figure we have arrived at for rebel dead from their total figure as their figures make no distinction between rebel dead and civilian dead but instead lump them together. We then calculate an average and use that average figure for the week concerned unless either the VDC or Shuhada figure for that week is higher, in which case we use whichever is the highest. This is because figures from VDC and Shuhada are more credibly sourced (i.e. they show more names and / or videos in support of their figures) than figures from other sources.

This may sound complex but we try to do our best to give you reasonably comparable data. We believe the figures we provide are more credible than those issued by the United Nations. If the United Nations were transparent about the background totals they use, their figures might be credible (especially if they also drew a clear distinction between combatant and non-combatant deaths).

Further background notes compiled by Shree Wood, our Chief Syria analyst, follow:

Both the UN and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have claimed that since the start of the conflict in March 2011, over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria.  They also claimed (on no verifiable basis) that the government forces were inflicting more casualties than rebels as they have more access to greater fire power including heavy artillery and bombs. Civilians accounted for more than a third of the fatalities.
The Syrian observatory released a figure of 100,191 which came from adding the daily tallies kept since the beginning of the conflict.

The UN also believes that the death toll has likely surpassed 100,000 although they only have figures available from March 2011 to April 2013 which show that nearly 93,000 have been killed to that point. The UN human rights office came up with the number by distilling from a pool of 263,055 reported deaths from various sources. These are then cross checked to eliminate duplicates and those without details or evidence. According to the UN, the final figure is conservative. Referring to their estimate that over 5,000 are killed (on average) per month, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Ms Navi Pillay announced that “This is extremely high rate of killings, month after month, reflects the drastically deteriorating pattern of the conflict over the past year.” Ms Pillay also said that the total includes civilians and combatants but there was no official breakdown of the fatalities.

According to the UN the largest number of killings has been recorded around Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Idlib, and more than four out of five victims have been men. Ms. Pillay said the beginning of the conflict, the killing of “at least 6,561 minors, including at least 1,729 children under 10 years old” was documented, and cases of individual children being tortured and executed and entire families massacred (they imply that most – though clearly not all – of these are the victims of government action, though they make no distinction as to whether some of those killed were killed in collateral damage or massacre as a consequence of rebel action).

Human rights organisations and other various sources claim that the bulk of casualties are civilians caught in the crossfire, bombardments and massacres. However, the number of civilian casualties has fallen significantly as many have fled the country. As the fighting shifts to capturing key cities and check points throughout the country, the number of government soldiers and rebels killed continue to be high.

On May 19, Syrian government forces, supported by a significant number of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, began a major offensive to retake al-Qusayr, a Syrian town of about 30,000 people on the border with Lebanon. Opposition forces had largely controlled the strategically important town since July 2012. For two weeks, government forces subjected the town to intensive bombardment and enforced a siege.

Denial of safe passage to civilians trapped in fighting is in violation of the laws of war and has been a recurring issue during the Syrian armed conflict. A recent Human Rights Watch investigation into the government and Hezbollah attack on al-Qusayr, near Homs, claimed that the government’s refusal to allow humanitarian organizations access to the town appeared to have contributed to the deaths, that no safe evacuation routes were available to civilians, and wounded people were denied adequate medical care. “Many lives in al-Qusayr might have been saved if the Syrian government had allowed aid organizations to do their job,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In late June, the Syrian government’s new “Jaish al-Watany” (a national volunteer force that has superseded the “Shabiha”) waged an eight day campaign to retake the remaining opposition-controlled areas of the old city of Homs, including the city’s Khaldiyeh and Baba Houds districts. This was a significant gain for the al-Assad government.

Fighting also continued in the city of Aleppo. North Aleppo is a crucial stronghold for the rebels, as well as the Damascus suburb of Qaboun. Government forces, sometimes backed by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have recently launched a major countrywide offensive to reclaim territory lost to rebels, who operate in chaotic groups with ideologies ranging from secular to hard-line Islamic extremists.

The fighting in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian undertones as Assad enjoys support from many in his Alawite sect and other religious minorities while the rebels are mainly Sunnis.

On July 12, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a statement saying it is “alarmed” by the situation in the old city of Homs and that it would like to bring in humanitarian assistance and enable the evacuation of civilians. However without the cooperation of both the Syriangovernment and the Opposition, this would be a near impossible task.

Opposition forces have imposed sieges on the government held Shia towns of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo governorate, limiting access for approximately 70,000 people to food, fuel, and medical supplies, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry. The lack of medical supplies such as oxygen, antibiotics, and anaesthetics has become critical as the number of wounded increases.

The Syrian government rejected many international calls for the evacuation of civilians and refused to grant unconditional access to independent observers. The conflict has now ravaged Syria for 2 ½ years, with the country’s children hit the hardest.

Below is the link to the NCF website where a weekly breakdown of the figures according to provinces is available (it will be further updated over the next couple of days):

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