Some Thoughts on Syrian Casualty Figures

The New York Times reported yesterday that in 2014 more than 76,000 people were killed in the ongoing war in Syria. This was actually the highest figure since the conflict began (with 73,447 deaths in 2013; 49,294 in 2012; and 7,841 in 2011), so things have not gotten better. 

The statistics came from the British-based organization The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the newspaper admitted that the figures could not be independently verified. That is probably to be expected. Estimating casualties during a time of war is a nearly impossible task, for obvious reasons. Even demographic surveys conducted after a war give a wide range of casualty estimates, as was the case with Iraq. Still, any attempt to quantify casualties is admirable, and a reminder of the damage done by war. 

One pattern stood out to me, which was the proportion of deaths attributed to civilians. If their estimates are correct (as much as possible), then civilians comprised 23% of deaths. The rest were divided among various factions of combatants. 

Syria casualties

This is fairly unusual. Most wars in the recent past have tended to affect civilians more, with casualties in the range of 67% to 90% of total deaths. So, either the pattern in Syria is rather aberrant compared to other wars, or the estimates are off-base.

It is possible, given the enormous number of Syrians displaced by the war, that there are fewer civilians directly in harm’s way. The last figure I saw was 7.6 million people displaced within Syria and 3.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries (source). Perhaps in some twisted way, that is a good thing, that displacement is the best of the horrible options available.

However, it’s probably most accurate to say that there are no real winners here. This is an enormous humanitarian disaster. 

8 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Syrian Casualty Figures

  1. Could the displacement be downplaying the civilian deaths in another sense. I can imagine many locations being fled to aren’t particularly great – to put it mildly – which could lead to some dying. However, since they weren’t directly killed by the war might they have been left out of the total.

  2. Kill 3000 or so people in a TV spectacular and the world is shocked. Kill 6000 a day every day and the world yawns.

      • Perhaps it is normal, Patrick. The death toll in the ‘War to End War’ was, after all, in the millions each year and looked like it would continue to the last man left standing. Robert Graves, the Great War poet was disgusted by the war and by the celebrations that followed it.

        On the bright side we have a decline in war deaths ever since WW2. Given population increase, that suggests a real proportionate decline. I feel sure the fatalities related to Syria would be that much greater were the West actively involved in the war.

        • Hi Robert, Perhaps in some ways we are getting better, and some people (like Steven Pinker) have tried to make that point. But the two World Wars set the bar pretty low, and a century is not very long in human time. It’s not too hard to imagine something like that from happening again, without being vigilant against our own frailties.

          I don’t know much about Robert Graves, but I always found this 1971 song about WWI by Eric Bogle to be very moving.

          “And now every April I sit on my porch
          And I watch the parade pass before me
          And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
          Reliving old dreams of past glory
          And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
          The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
          And the young people ask me, “What are they marching for?”
          And I ask myself the same question.”

  3. Pingback: Year in Review: Top Posts of 2015 | Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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