UN estimate of Syria death toll highlights discrepancies in casualty reporting

The 60,000 deaths in Syria reported by the United Nations last week is a big jump from the 40,000- 45,000 deaths that most other organizations report.

Bassem Al-Erbeeni/Shaam News Network/Reuters
A man walks near buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Erbeen, near Damascus, in a photo provided by Shaam News Network January 6.

A new United Nations-sponsored report that estimates more than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s political violence has touched off a new dispute that underscores how little is truly known about the toll from a civil war just weeks from beginning its third year.

One Syrian activist who provided some of the numbers for the study says he believes the new numbers are inflated, while another says he believes they underrepresent the dead.

“They are being used as propaganda,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who believes the new numbers overstate the number of dead. “The UN is not a human rights organization, it is a political one.”

Rahman said he believed the report, made public Wednesday, was being used to pressure countries into working harder to reach a political deal to stop the fighting.

Rahman’s criticism is notable. His organization’s numbers, gathered from informants on the ground in Syria, are the most widely quoted source for information on the daily violence inside Syria. His is also the only organization that attempts to record casualties from all sides of the conflict – rebels, the government and civilians. To date, he’s logged about 46,000 deaths since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.

Megan Price, a senior statistician for Benetech, the California firm that compiled the report for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Rahman had shared his concerns with the report’s authors. "We have nothing but the utmost respect for the groups doing this very hard work,” Price said, adding that Rahman’s concerns about the accuracy of some of the data used in the study “are valid."

But she also said she still agreed with the report’s general conclusion that the data used to compile the report, gathered from six organizations and the Syrian government, almost certainly missed a number of deaths that have yet to be counted. “The statistics presented in this report should be considered minimum bounds,” the report said.

“Based on our experience in other countries, and really just thinking about the way that violence occurs, there will inevitably be violence that is not recorded, especially if it leaves behind only the perpetrators or witnesses who don’t feel safe enough to report or they don’t have any reason to,” she said.

That view was endorsed by Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which is part of another group that tracks casualties, the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The network, which only records deaths of rebel fighters and civilians, has reported the deaths of 42,343 people since March 18, 2011.

The likelihood that many deaths have gone unreported should spur a push for international monitors to document the violence in Syria, said Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition exile group that has lobbied hard for international support for the rebels.

“This is why it’s important to have independent fact-finding on the ground,” he said.

Syria’s death toll has long been a hotly debated topic. The United Nations stopped publishing a death toll nearly a year ago after officials realized that they could not independently document the killings and that most of the groups purporting to have information were sympathetic to the rebels and did not delineate between civilian deaths and those of rebel combatants. For its part, the Syrian government provided statistics primarily for its supporters and police and soldiers killed in combat with the rebels. The government stopped publicizing those casualties late last spring as it became clear rebels were taking an ever greater toll on government forces.

The Benetech study was an effort to arrive at an accurate figure by comparing the reports provided by both Rahman’s and Ziadeh’s groups and four others as well as the Syrian government. The firm’s statisticians compared each of the databases with one another in an effort to weed out duplicates and insufficiently documented deaths. Researchers included only casualties that had been identified with a first and last name and a date and place of death.

The process yielded a list of 59,648 unduplicated death reports from March 2011 through November. Of those, 76.1 percent were male and 7.5 percent were female. The sex of 16.4 percent could not be determined from the records, the report said.

But there were many questions that the report could not answer. For one, the analysis could not determine how many of those killed were civilians and how many were combatants. It also said that more than 70 percent of the records did not provide an age for the victim, meaning that the study could reach no conclusions about the death toll among children and the elderly.

The lack of information about whether the dead were bystanders or combatants also leaves open the debate over Syrian government tactics. Anti-Assad groups have consistently accused the government of targeting civilians in its bombardment of urban areas, a charge the Syrian government answers by claiming that the areas were occupied by armed rebels.

The way the various groups account for civilian casualties varies widely, underscoring the difficulty.

Ziadeh says his group’s numbers “indicate that 90 to 95 percent of those killed are civilians.” But Rahman’s Syrian Observatory sees a less lopsided ratio, with its numbers for November and December – 3,860 and 3,690, respectively – showing that only 42 percent of those were civilians.

Those variations exist even though both groups say they rely on the same basic methodology to gather their information: interviews with family members, photographic and video evidence, and evidence collected by activists on the ground to back up their statistics.

Both groups agree that violence peaked in August, when each counted for than 5,000 dead.

Rahman said, however, that he intends to present evidence to the United Nations that some of the death reports its study used included faked names and people who died from causes unrelated to the war.

He cited a recent attack on a gasoline station as example of the misrepresentation of some of the attacks that take place inside Syria.

“People said more than 30 people died,” Rahman said. “But no one had more than 12 names, or video of more than 12 bodies.”

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com, Twitter @davidjenders

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