The war in Syria is very different to the recent wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet comparisons are occasionally made for whatever reason. In a January 2013 interview, President Obama brought up conflict in the DRC when contextualising his decision-making on Syria:
In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.
As Michael E. O’Hanlon pointed out at the time, Congo presented a very different case to Syria. Most of the deaths were being caused by malnutrition and poor healthcare, not directly by violence. A UN peacekeeping mission was in place, and had been since 1999. The US had been involved in training the DRC’s military since 2009, though with mixed results.
Michael E. O’Hanlon argued that there was certainly more that the US could usefully contribute, but that the DRC conflict was much less violent than those the US had faced in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also that conditions in Syria and the DRC were quite different, so that even if the US decided to commit forces in both places, the kinds of forces each would require would not be the same, and so there would be few if any conflicting demands from the two missions.
So different are the problems in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo that it’s hard to believe the President was raising the DRC in his Syria answer as a genuine concern; it seems to have been more of an attempt to use Congo’s problems as a rhetorical diversion. This is what is known as ‘whataboutery’.
Turning from the President of the United States to a consistent opponent of American foreign policy, the British political commentator Owen Jones has been writing on Syria recently. In a column for The Guardian on the 3rd of March, he drew attention to the horror of the Assad regime’s barrel bombs, and contrasted the regime’s public relations approach, attempting to present its terror campaign as a legitimate disciplined military operation, with the PR strategy of ISIS, designed to flaunt its brutality.
Following this welcome highlighting of Assad’s deadly air campaign, Owen Jones accepted an invitation to speak at next week’s demonstration in London to mark the 4th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. That demonstration has as one of its demands a no-fly zone for Syria, calling on France, the UK, and the US, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, to act either individually or collectively to protect civilians, to enforce UN Security Council 2139, and to ground Assad’s air force. I very much look forward to hearing what Owen Jones has to say at the rally, particularly as he has in the past been wholly opposed to any military intervention by Western countries, and a change of heart would be very welcome.
In that same 3rd March column for The Guardian, Owen Jones made his own Syria/Congo comparison, pointing to “the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo” as well as “Pol Pot and his killing fields” and “the mass murder of a million communists in Indonesia in the 1960s” to make the point that ISIS aren’t quite the most deadly phenomenon since the Nazis. In this he was criticising an opinion article published in the Independent, though I think the Independent article wasn’t actually making that precise claim.
Owen Jones has on a couple of other occasions compared Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first time that I’m aware of was at a speech to the Stop The War Conference in November 2013.
In that speech Owen Jones gave a justification of his opposition to Western intervention following the Assad regime’s chemical weapons massacre in the suburbs of Damascus (though the Ghouta massacre wasn’t actually mentioned in his speech) and then proclaimed his hope that the opening of US-Iran nuclear talks would lead to a peace deal for Syria. This was followed by a justification for selectivity in which wars the antiwar movement campaigns on, with a brief mention of DRC as a war “airbrushed out of existence by the corporate media,” and as “the most murderous conflict since World War Two.” Both of these assertions are questionable in my view, as I will explain further on.
On Friday he devoted his entire Guardian column to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Again he compared it to Syria:
Some lives matter more than others: the “hierarchy of death”, they call it. The millions killed, maimed and traumatised in the Democratic Republic of Congo are surely at the bottom of this macabre pile. The country was the site of the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler, and yet I doubt most people in the west are even aware of it. No heart-wrenching exclusives at the top of news bulletins; no mounting calls for western militaries to “do something”.
We are rightly appalled at a barbaric conflict in Syria that has stolen the lives of 200,000 civilians; and yet up to 6 million people are believed to have perished in the DRC. Not that the mainstream media alone can be berated for this astonishing lack of attention. The left have rightly championed the cause of a Palestinian people subjected to decades-long occupation and subjugation: surely the misery of the DRC does not deserve this neglect.
It is disappointing for an article ostensibly intended to correct the public’s ignorance on the DRC to include that misleading line about no calls for military intervention; military intervention in the DRC has been ongoing for several years, starting with a UN monitoring mission in 1999, expanded as a peacekeeping mission in 2000, and further expanded in 2004 with a Chapter VII mandate to use force to protect civilians. By 2013 the UN force had an offensive combat mandate and was using attack helicopters, tanks, APCs, and artillery, to force the withdrawal of rebel militias in eastern DRC.
US military training operations in DR Congo were mentioned earlier. The EU has also been engaged in Congo: Since 2005, the EUSEC RD Congo mission has been dedicated to reforming the DRC army, while a parallel EUPOL RD Congo mission has been dedicated to restructuring the police. And in 2006 the EU launched Operation EUFOR RD Congo, a military operation in support of UN operations in Congo.
The claim by Owen Jones that the 1998-2003 Second Congo War was “the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler” as he writes in The Guardian, or “the most murderous conflict since World War Two” as he claimed in his 2013 Stop the War Conference speech, should be looked at more closely, as should his comparison of 6 million deaths in DRC with “200,000 civilians” killed in Syria.
Starting with the Syria number, I think Owen Jones has likely made a mistake here, as I don’t know of any reputable organisation claiming 200,000 civilians have been violently killed in Syria. The most recent UN study arrived at a minimum count of 191,369 violent deaths up to the end of April 2014, but this included combatants as well as non-combatants. This is an average of over 5,200 violent deaths over the duration of the conflict. The count for the most recent 12 months of the report, May 2013 to April 2014, was a minimum of 61,816 killed, an average of over 5,100 per month, so certainly the number of violent deaths including both combatants and non-combatants is by now well over 200,000.
It’s very important here to understand the meaning of a minimum count: This is not an estimate of the true total, but a minimum number of violent deaths that could be individually confirmed. The true total is certainly higher, though to an unknown degree. Many casualty numbers reported for other conflicts are not minimum counts but estimates, often estimates based on sample surveys. Such estimates are more uncertain than minimum counts in that the true number may be either higher or lower than the estimated number. One should therefore be careful about directly comparing a minimum count for one conflict with a sample survey estimate for another conflict.
With regard to the UN’s minimum count of violent deaths in Syria, particularly striking is that they only had access to Syrian Government casualty figures from March 2011 through March 2012; after that date the Assad regime stopped releasing figures, so there is likely to be a very significant number of regime forces killed that are not included in the UN count.
The most widely reported mortality figures for the 1998-2003 Second Congo War have been those produced by the International Rescue Committee. Between 2000 and 2004, the IRC conducted a series of four mortality surveys. In aggregate, these studies estimated that 3.9 million excess deaths had occurred between 1998 and 2004:
Less than 10 percent of deaths were directly attributable to violence. The vast majority of Congolese died from the indirect public health effects of conflict, including higher rates of infectious diseases, increased prevalence of malnutrition and complications arising from neonatal- and pregnancy-related conditions.
This means that the IRC estimated total violent deaths in the Second Congo War at under 390,000 over five to six years. (The survey extended beyond the official end of the war.) As it’s an estimate, the true number could be above or below that, and the margin of error will be dependent on how representative the sample surveys were of the overall situation.
There is no research that I know of that has attempted to estimate excess deaths due to the war in Syria, therefore the only comparison of deaths we can make between Syria and the DRC is of violent deaths, and on violent deaths we can only say that in Syria at least 191,369 people were killed in just over three years, with the true number likely much higher, though we don’t know how much higher, while in the DRC more or less than 390,000 people were killed over a period of between five and six years.
It may be that more people have already been violently killed in Syria’s war than in the Second Congo War, or it may be that Syria’s toll will pass the DRC’s in the coming couple of years, or it may be that Syria’s war will mercifully end before that happens. We don’t know, and we can’t know on the available evidence.
Similarly we can’t know whether the level of excess deaths due to the war in Syria will be higher or lower than in the DRC, though with half the population displaced, with the enormous destruction of housing, and particularly with the ongoing deliberate targeting of health services by the regime, we can expect that the level of excess deaths in Syria will be very high indeed.
To return to Owen Jones’ 2013 phrase “the most murderous conflict since World War Two,” this I think is unjustified as ‘murderous’ implies violent deaths, and the IRC estimate for violent deaths in the Second Congo War is lower than the Rwandan Genocide, to take the most significant comparison. His more recent formulation, “the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler,” has more justification as the International Rescue Committee have used the words “arguably… the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II” to describe the Democratic Republic of Congo, based on their excess deaths estimate. Note however the use of the word “arguably” by the IRC: there isn’t adequate research on excess deaths across all conflicts since the Second World War to allow certainty in their statement.
As for Owen Jones characterising the Second Congo War as a war “airbrushed out of existence by the corporate media” in his 2013 speech, this was fantastically hyperbolic. Here are 33 pages of links to stories on Congo from The Guardian over recent years. Here are recent stories from The Telegraph; older stories can be found via their search facility. Here’s the New York Times topic page for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google will get you more, like this 2001 story which shows that although most people’s attention was indeed elsewhere, CNN was still covering events in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But even if CNN reports it, that doesn’t guarantee that people will read it, and it does look as though Owen Jones perhaps hadn’t read enough before writing, noticing as he did the cannibalism, mentioned in both of his recent columns, but missing the years of effort by the international community to bring security and stability. There are further issues to explore of how that effort might have been improved, and going back further, of whether a more interventionist policy prior to the Rwanda Genocide might have averted the entire cascade of violence, but they are beyond the scope of this post.
Finally we have to come back again to the term ‘whataboutery’. In making these repeated comparisons between Syria and the DRC, is Owen Jones, like Barack Obama, using the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history as a diversion, or is he treating it as a subject in its own right?
The same question was raised by some when he wrote about Assad’s barrel bombs: was this a rhetorical diversion to diminish the importance of the fight against ISIS, or was it a sincere attempt to draw attention to Assad’s murderous air attacks on civilians, attacks that France, the UK, and the US, have the means to stop? I hope we’ll find out on Saturday.
Come along on Saturday March 14th in London to show your solidarity and support for a peaceful, democratic Syria: a Syria without Assad and a Syria without ISIS. Call for better treatment of Syrian refugees. Call for the protection of civilians. Call for a no-fly zone.
UPDATE: Owen Jones didn’t make it to the demo after all, and as far as I know he still hasn’t commented on the call to enforce a No-Fly Zone.