Sunday, 6 January 2013

Sixty thousand dead in a strategic context

The latest UN count of Syrians killed in the ongoing war lists 59,648 dead from March 15th 2011 to November 30th 2012 according to a conservative survey, with the actual number expected to be greater. This puts the rate of killing in Syria higher than in the two worst years of the Iraq Body Count figures for the Iraq war, 29,026 for 2006 and 25,280 for 2007.

Update: IBC figures don’t include confirmed military casualties. From, Coalition military deaths in 2006 were 873, and in 2007 were 961, giving minimum totals of 29,899 killed in 2006 and 26,241 killed in 2007.

If one compares the figures as daily averages, these Iraq minimum counts showed a daily average of 82 people killed per day in 2006, and 72 people killed per day in 2007, while the UN report shows an average of 95 people killed a day in Syria over the entirety of the conflict. If one looked only at 2012 in Syria the average would be higher as the killing escalated significantly, particularly from April onwards.

US military figures given for insurgents killed in Iraq were 3,902 in 2006 and 6,747 in 2007, but these likely have some overlap with IBC figures for civilians. Taken at face value they add 11 killed on average per day in 2006 for a total of 93 per day, and 18 per day for 2007 for a total of 90 per day, still lower than the daily average for Syria.

Both the UN count for Syria and the Iraq Body Count numbers are minimum counts, which do not include the missing or the unreported. In another example, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia prepared its 2010 estimate of the death toll in the 1992-95 Bosnian War, it arrived at a list of 89,186 unique death records, the minimum number, but the undercount was estimated at 15,546 resulting in the total number of casualties of 104,732. See report here (PDF). Even this added margin doesn’t include excess deaths: indirect casualties caused by the disruption and destruction of war. The number of deaths resulting from the war in Syria will already be much higher than 60,000.

Making the comparison between the rate of killing in Syria now with the rate of killing in Iraq in 2006-07 might give some sense of scale. It also raises the question of whether a US led military intervention in 2012 might have reduced the killing, or whether such an intervention in 2013 might effectively reduce the killing. The numbers of course can’t give an answer, but they can call into question any expressions of certainty that US intervention is doomed to make things worse.

With the rate of killing higher than that seen in Iraq, and the minimum count of people killed already two-thirds of the minimum count for the Bosnian War, with the war being fought across NATO’s southern border, why is there still no sign of decisive intervention by the US and allies?

The cold horror of this war from a strategic view is that the further it goes without US involvement, the greater are the losses inflicted on rival powers (Iran, Russia) at the lowest cost to the US, at least until it reaches a point where diminishing returns on the war’s effects on rivals are outweighed by rising dangers to US allies. Prior to that point, if the US intervenes it assumes associated risks, military economic and diplomatic, and lets rivals like Russia off the hook to cut their losses and blame the consequences on ‘imperialists’.

The strategic problem is that the point where rising dangers exceed diminishing returns, where intervention may become preferable for the US, could be hard to identify before it’s already passed. And the more damaged the physical, social, and psychological fabric of the country and its people, the harder it will be to build a stable and safe neighbour for NATO and the other US allies bordering Syria.

In the meantime hundreds of people will continue to be killed every week, and they will weigh lightly in the US and NATO’s strategic balance.

Added: a detailed article from FP magazine dated March 2012 on Patrick Ball, the statistician primarily responsible for the UN’s new Syria report.

Also, Jeff Weintraub considers the implications of comparing Syria and Iraq.


jams o donnell said...

The stats make for grim reading.I doubt that there will e any active intervention by NATO - whether that is for the better or worse

kellie said...

I think a wisely planned intervention could hasten the end of fighting, at least in the north, and speed physical, social and political reconstruction, which is just as important, but like yourself I have little hope we'll see it anytime soon.

The banner in this photo makes feelings clear.