Without support, U.N. reports civilians hit hardest in Syrian rebellion

Map of Syria locating deaths recorded in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); the U.N. is reporting at least 93,000 have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict.


By MARK SEIBEL | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: June 13, 2013

WASHINGTON — The United Nations on Thursday reported that at least 92,901 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, according to a new study of casualty reports compiled by eight Syrian organizations.

But the report, which covered deaths through April 30, provided no information on whether the dead were civilians or combatants and was less detailed than statistics provided to McClatchy by a human rights group earlier this month that indicated that Syrian soldiers and members of pro-Assad militias made up the largest single category of the dead.

Discussion of the death toll in Syria is a highly charged topic, and U.S. and other Western officials have used the reported death toll to condemn the Assad regime for killing its own people.

In announcing the report, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “civilians are bearing the brunt” of the violence in Syria. She said that “government forces are shelling and launching aerial attacks on urban areas day in and day out, and are also using strategic missiles and cluster and thermobaric bombs” — also known as fuel-air bombs.

She also blamed opposition forces for shelling residential areas “albeit using less firepower” and blamed the rebels for “bombings resulting in casualties in the heart of cities, especially Damascus.”

But the authors of the report provided little to back up Pillay’s assertions, saying in their 27-page report that the information they had been given to research — lists of the dead collected by eight different organizations, including the Syrian government — was not complete enough to provide a detailed look at the dead.

“The status of the victims as combatants or non-combatants is unknown for all but a few records,” the report said. No age was given for 70 percent of the victims, the report said, and even the sex of many victims was in question; the report said that 82.6 percent of the dead were male and 7.6 percent female, but that the gender of 9.8 percent was unknown.

The report was cautious even about whether violence had increased, though the recorded deaths had reached a steady clip of 5,000 a month since last year. “This increase may reflect an overall increase in violence,” the report said. Or it may indicate “an increase in documentation efforts. … It is impossible to rigorously distinguish between these alternatives.”

The report was the second this year that the U.N. commissioned from an organization called the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which took the lists of the dead it had been given and compared them to one another. The group threw out records that did not have the name of the victim and the date and location of death, then compared the remaining names to come up with one list of unduplicated reported deaths.

In all, the report said, the eight Syrian organizations provided a total of 301,043 death reports. Of those, 37,988 did not have complete names. Of the remaining 263,055, most were found to be duplicates, leaving the 92,901 total deaths reported.

The report also confirmed that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that is frequently cited for accounts of the daily violence in Syria, provided the most accurate records. Of the 45,416 names the observatory provided, only 2 percent lacked enough information to be included in the study — the lowest rejection rate of the organizations. Another prominent group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, had more than 24 percent of its death claims excluded from the study.

Early this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told McClatchy that based on its most current records, 96,431 people had lost their lives in Syrian violence. Of those, 24,617 were members of the Syrian security forces and 17,031 were members of pro-government militias — 43.2 percent of the total.

Civilian noncombatants are the next largest group of the dead — 35,479, or 36.8 percent of the total, according to the human rights group.

Deaths among anti-Assad fighters total 16,699, or 17.3 percent, according to the new numbers. Of those, 12,615 were Syrian civilians who had picked up arms against the regime, 1,965 were rebel fighters who had defected from the Syrian military and 2,119 were foreigners who were killed fighting on the Syrian rebels’ behalf.

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