Syrian Observatory says 115,000 have died in civil war, but that's only part of the story

Posted by Mark Seibel on October 3, 2013 

— The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week posted on its Facebook page new statistics on the dead in Syria's civil war. No doubt it's not a full accounting, but the numbers, through Sept. 30, are valuable in sorting through trends that are lost in the daily news accounts of the war. Here's some of what the new numbers show.

-- The pace of violence has dropped in the past few months, perhaps not by much, but certainly it is no longer at the record pace of this time last year, when more than 5,000 people were dying each month. For the past four months, the average has been around 4,600 a month. That's still more than three times what it was when Kofi Annan was begging the United States to persuade the rebels to negotiate.

-- The burden of the war is falling increasingly heavily on combatants – anti-Assad rebels and the Syrian military – and less so on civilians. The ratio of combatants to civilians killed was 2.66 to 1 during the past four months; that's way up from the 1.64 to 1 ratio that existed for the first 26 months of the war, and may be a reflection of the massive exodus of civilians from areas of combat that's created the displacement crisis Syrians now face. The percentage of civilians killed as part of the total dead has dropped, to just over 35 percent, from nearly 37 percent as of May 30.

-- Pro-Assad forces continue to make up the largest group of the dead – around 41 percent, followed by civilians, who may be on either side, or neither. Rebel forces make up the smallest fraction of the dead, just under 21 percent. It is simply incorrect when Western officials imply that the Syrian government has killed more than 100,000 of its own people.

-- Recent months have been hard on the rebels. Rebel deaths increased 42 percent in the four months ending Sept. 30. The biggest increase came among foreign fighters, most of whom are fighting with al Qaida-affiliated rebel units. Their deaths were up 110 percent over the past four months, versus an increase of 35 percent for Syrians battling the government. And while overall, almost twice as many Syrian government forces have died as rebels in the war (47,206 versus 23,707), rebels have died in greater numbers than government loyalists in the months since May 30 – 7,008 versus 5,413.

-- If percentage of the dead is any sign of the front-line importance of the two sides' foreign allies, then it is clear that foreign fighters are far more critical to the rebels' cause than to Assad's. Foreign fighters make up nearly one-fifth – just under 19 percent – of the rebel troops killed in the conflict to date while fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah are a negligible one-third of 1 percent of total pro-Assad dead. Looking at the last four months alone, the difference is even more pronounced: foreign fighters accounted for 33 percent of all rebels killed in Syria since the end of May; Hezbollah deaths made up just one half of a percentage point of all pro-Assad deaths in the same period, which included the government's recapture of Qusayr, the battle where Hezbollah forces first came to the world's attention.

-- The importance of the pro-Assad popular defense militias may have declined in the last four months. Of the combatant groups, their deaths increased by the least, 7 percent, between June 1 and the end of September.

-- For all the conversation over the years of the role of defected soldiers in the anti-Assad movement, they make up a small percentage of the dead on that side, just 9 percent. And they were only 3 percent of the anti-Assad forces killed in the last four months. Overall, twice as many foreign fighters as defected Syrian soldiers have died for the anti-Assad cause.

Of course, the numbers themselves are problematic. The Observatory said the confirmed death toll in the 30 months of violence between March 18, 2011, and Sept 30, 2013, stands at 115,206. But in breaking down that figure by civilians, rebels, pro-Assad fighters, and those it couldn't characterize, the Observatory accounted for only 113,819. So all the percentages above may be off by a digit or two. But the trends still hold.

If you want to do the math yourself, here're the numbers the Observatory posted this week on its Facebook page: Civilian dead, 40,146; Rebel dead, 23,707 (17,071 Syrian civilians who've picked up arms, 2,176 defected soldiers, 4,460 foreign fighters); Pro-Assad dead, 47,206 (regular soldiers, 28,804, popular militias, 18,228, and Hezbollah, 174); uncategorized dead, 2,760.

I compared them to the numbers the Observatory gave our former correspondent in Syria, David Enders, back in June. Those numbers accounted for 96,431 dead as follows: Civilians, 35,479; Rebels, 16,699 (12,615 Syrian civilians, 1,965 defected soldiers, 2,119 foreign fighters); Pro-Assad dead, 41,793 (regular soldiers, 24,617; popular militias, 17,031, and Hezbollah, 145); uncategorized dead, 2,460.

Subtracting the June numbers from the September numbers allows you to compute the percentages that informed the above observations.

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