How deadly is the conflict in Syria, really?

The ongoing civil war in Syria has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Aaron David Miller at Foreign Policy recently described it as Obama’s new “Problem From Hell,” a reference to Samantha Power’s book about other genocidal slaughters of recent history such as Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda.  According to the UN’s latest estimates, over 93,000 Syrians may have died since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in March 2011. Syrian opposition groups put the number even higher.

These figures are deeply disturbing when you think about them. That people are able to slaughter so many of each other so systemically, and to so little constructive purpose, represents a catastrophic failure of human empathy and, in my view, a harsh indictment of the institutions of warfare. That being said, does Syria’s current level of bloodshed really compare with other major conflicts in recent world history?

The question is important because pro-intervention advocates are using these analogies to marshal support for external military intervention into the conflict. Up until a few months ago, the West’s experience in Libya in 2011 acted as the “window” through which many people saw a potential Syrian intervention. With the recent heightened pace of violence, more alarming comparisons have come to the fore, such as Bosnia, Darfur, even Rwanda. Are these comparisons valid?

On the one hand …

It has become worse than the Second Gulf War. According to Iraq Body Count, the bloodshed in Iraq peaked in 2006, with an average of 76.4 deaths per day (this includes all violence directly linked to the insurgency, sectarian conflict, and terrorism). By a quick calculation, 93,000 Syrian deaths since March 2011 equals an average of about 117 deaths per day. The Syrian conflict is therefore claiming more lives than the Iraq war did at the height of its intensity. Consider also that Syria’s population is two-thirds smaller than Iraq’s, so the death rate per capita is considerably higher.

It may soon be worse than Bosnia. Recent analyses of the civil war in Bosnia from 1992-1995 estimate the casualty count at slightly above 100,000. If current trends in violence continue in Syria, it will surpass this death toll by the end of the summer.

On the other hand, it’s not as bad as

The Afghan Civil War (1979-Present). After the fall of the Soviet-backed Marxist government in Kabul in 1979, Afghanistan has been in a more-or-less constant state of civil war, with Afghans, Soviets, Islamic mujahedeen from various countries, and NATO forces from various countries all contributing to the bloodshed. The conservative death toll estimate is about 1.5 million, or an average of 120.8 deaths per day. That means that, on average, over the past 34 years Afghanistan has had a higher rate of war-related deaths than Syria has had for the last two.

The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). This conflict waxed and waned for twenty-two years (and, since the independence of the South, threatens to flare again), killing somewhere in the vicinity of two million Sudanese. Even over this long stretch, that makes for a death rate of about 250 per day, more than twice as high as the Syrian uprisings.

The Rwandan Civil War / Genocide (1990-1994). Rwanda’s post-colonial history has been defined by a hostile and violent enduring rivalry, culminating in the most high-intensity killing spree in recorded history. Between April and July 1994, approximately 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were butchered, mostly with machetes and hand tools, in the course of about 100 days.  You don’t need a calculator to do the math.

The Second Congo War (1998-2003). Also known as “Africa’s World War”, this conflict killed between 2.5 and 5.4 million people between August 1998 and July 2003. Using the conservative estimate, that makes for a staggering daily death count of 1,369. Granted, a large number of these fatalities were caused by disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence. Regardless, the sheer scale of the death toll in this conflict was on a higher order than anything the world has seen since.

And this doesn’t even include some of the other deadly inter-state / internationalized conflicts since WWII, such as the Korean Civil War (up to four million died between 1950 and 1953), the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge terrors, etc., all of which have death tolls dwarfing the current Syrian conflict. And if we reach a bit further back in history, the numbers get even uglier. In the Russian Civil War, for instance, an estimated 5 million were killed between the fall of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 and the consolidation of Bolshevik power in 1922, making for an eye-popping death rate of around 2,739 people per day.

So, does Syria rank among the worst-of-the-worst violent conflicts? Perhaps not yet, but it is heading there. Part of the reason for the growing alarmism is the upward trajectory of the violence. In March 2013 alone, there are reports of as many as 6000 deaths. That is a daily death count of about 200, which would indeed soon rank the Syrian conflict among the most deadly in recent decades. There is also the fear of conflict diffusion, expanding the war into more neighbouring countries (this is already occurring in Lebanon).

The point here isn’t to trivialize the current horror-show happening in Syria, or to reduce the analysis of violent conflict to some abstract game of statistics. But it’s useful to keep an informed and broad perspective when assessing any individual case, and avoid getting swept along with the over-sensationalized or misleading statements by commentators or experts who may be trying to sell you something.

Philip Martin

3 thoughts on “How deadly is the conflict in Syria, really?

  1. Reuters ran a story citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights for the number of regime forces dead: Army 25,040 and 17,107 pro-regime militia. (These figures were not part of the UN Report though the Syrian Observatory was one of the study’s participants.) If this is anywhere close to being true, then we have to ask how many of the rebel fighters are dying. If the figure is comparable it leads to the conclusion that either almost all the dead are combatants or the number of deaths is being significantly understated. Humanitarian intervention is usually driven by civilian deaths. Indeed it is not clear that either side in the Syrian civil are is engaged in the systematic targeting of particular social groups. Furthermore it can be reasonably argued that all the conflicts you mentioned with the exception of Rwanda featured substantial and sustained foreign intervention in support of local actors. Intervention was in no case of course designed to achieve peace for peace’s sake but a favorable (from the intervening actor’s view) political result and arguably led to more lives being lost.

  2. Pingback: How bad is the violence in Syria? |

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