What is the Syrian death toll now? 400,000? Less? More? While the aphorism “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic”, has been attributed to many, it is likely none foresaw the inverse utility of this concept for shaping narratives in an age of humanitarian intervention. Statistics are now weapons in themselves. Raw numbers are ambiguous; as journalist Sharmine Narwani writes, “It doesn’t tell us who is killing and who is dying. And that information matters – the global political response to a genuine civil conflict would be different than to a genocide committed by a ruthless authority.”
When the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released its eighth summary of the Syrian death toll in mid-2015 it painted this confused picture: 230,000 total deaths, between 150,000 and 160,000 ‘opposition deaths’ (civilian and military), a further 98,000 ‘other’ civilian deaths, and a very precise 18,476 ‘regime’ deaths – an actual minimum total of 266,476.
As this example shows, there are serious problems with the Syrian statistics. As the Washington Post reported earlier in 2016 “In some ways, the details matter more than the big picture in the death toll, but again, the details are divisive.”
While death toll reporting in conflicts is never accurate, CFR’s sources are hardly reliable. It cites three pro-opposition outlets – the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights (SOHR), the Violation Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), and the Syrian Revolution Martyr Database (SRMD) – which report significantly different figures in all casualty categories. Difference could be attributable to the difficulties of gathering information and providing ‘best estimates’ – yet the VDC and SRMD, who are most often quoted by CFR provide seemingly precise detail as to date, location and even ‘death method’. You can search the VDC database choosing between ‘Field Execution’, ‘Kidnapping execution’ and ‘Kidnapping-Torture-Execution’ among many others. So which is it, fine detail or lack of it?