BEIRUT: As the Syrian civil war continues unabated, with the levels of fighting and violence as heavy at any point over the last three years, the death count naturally continues to rise – but who is monitoring this morbid toll, what will they do with the information in the future and who can we believe? The U.N. announced it had stopped counting the dead in January, citing an inability to accurately monitor the figure due to the wartime chaos. The work now falls solely to non-governmental groups, particularly the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – most cited in mainstream media – the Violations and Documentations Center, the Local Coordination Committees network and the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Quite aside from the harrowing nature of the work, counting Syria’s dead is a time-consuming, complex and often thankless task, with the warring sides predictably accusing the groups of bias.
The Observatory, which is headquartered in Britain, posts the most detailed information and does so the most often.
It has also been sharply criticized by those who claim that its work “serves the interest” of the regime, even though it is routinely identified as being an anti-regime organization.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the Observatory’s director, told The Daily Star that he had around 130 staff on the ground as well as a wider network of around 5,000 informants made up of doctors, lawyers and others, from all sides of the conflict including the regime, and those working at military hospitals.
“We do not publish anything unless we are sure,” of its accuracy, he said.
In around 70 percent of deaths, video or photographic evidence is secured, he said, and the dead are not recorded unless the Observatory has the individual’s name.
In terms of civilian casualties, Abdel-Rahman believes his group has recorded “99 percent” of the deaths, but it is much more difficult to precisely monitor armed individuals, due to each side seeking to manipulate the statistics.
The group publishes daily death counts, and its overall toll – which stood at 150,000 last month – is generally accepted as the most accurate.
When it reported its “documented” figure of 150,000, the Observatory added that it believed the actual figure was even higher, at around 220,000.
The Observatory records deaths of civilians and fighters from each side of the war, including Al-Qaeda-linked or inspired groups, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The Local Coordination Committees, for example, do not record deaths from the latter groups, a spokesperson told The Daily Star.
Deaths are recorded by area and whether the fighter was a civilian or a fighter. The age and gender of civilians are recorded and, where possible, the cause of death. For fighters, their affiliation – be it the army, paramilitary groups such as the National Defense Forces or Hezbollah, or the rebel battalion they belong to – is recorded, as is their nationality and cause of death. Foreign fighters have joined the war on both sides, many from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran fighting on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s regime, and thousands of jihadists have joined the rebels, mainly in extremist groups, and are often preoccupied with the establishment of an Islamic state.
The Violations and Documentations Center, in contrast, focuses mainly on those killed by the regime, whether rebels of civilians, but all of whom are called “martyrs,” according to Bassam al-Ahmad, the center’s spokesperson.
The VDC has around 20 reporters across the country and 35 activists in total, including 20 within Syria, but Ahmad admitted the group’s work was incredibly difficult.
“We can’t be everywhere, this is war. Lots of areas are without electricity or controlled by the regime,” he said.
The VDC has recorded more than 90,000 deaths but also the existence 50,000 detainees, and some 2,000 people who are missing. It does not record regime deaths, but estimates that figure to be around 12,000.
“We think the real totals are about 40 percent higher,” Ahmad noted. “We are sure the number is bigger, but this is all we can document.”
Ahmad believes the documentation that the VDC is doing will be crucial in the future for any transitional justice period and hopes to work with the other groups also recording death tolls.
Ahmad said the VDC was thinking of soon ceasing to call all those killed by the regime “martyrs.”
“We used it in the beginning of the revolution, because then it was just civilians killed by regime forces. But we are now thinking of changing to ‘casualties and victims.’”
Such a move would be an important step, according to Hana Salama, senior advocacy officer at Every Casualty, part of the Oxford Research Group, which works to promote the documentation and naming of every conflict-related death across the globe.
“We’re trying to encourage people not to use culturally specific terms,” she said. “A victim is a victim whoever they are.”
The LCC also records every “martyr” as someone killed by the regime. But it admitted that death tolls could not always be immediately flawless.
“We try our best to be accurate as much as we can, but sometimes we get more names of dead people the following couple of days. Other times, people discover a massacre later on, and then they report it to us,” Jasmine, a spokesperson for the network told The Daily Star.
Every Casualty is working with the VDC and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, among others, to help them in their work, but not with the Observatory, as it refuses to share its work with the other groups.
“I don’t trust anyone else,” Abdel-Rahman, from the Observatory, said. “From both sides, they are all lying. ... I will not work with others as I have so much evidence that they are lying.”
He accused other groups of being financed by outsiders, including Gulf countries he did not name.
“Maybe I don’t have all the truth, but I think am closer than anyone else,” he said.
“I work for freedom and justice for everybody. Other people with agendas cannot be working for this.”
He accused pro-opposition monitoring groups of ignoring crimes against pro-regime civilians, including Alawites and Christians, and the regime of killing civilians and blaming it on the rebels.
“Hezbollah does not like the work we do, Turkey does not like the work we do, the regime does not like the work we do and the Gulf does not like the work we do, but we are happy with the work we do,” he said.
Some have accused the Observatory of fomenting sectarianism because it notes when Alawite- and Christian-majority areas are targeted by violence – but it does the same for other components of Syrian society that happen to be Sunni Muslim, such as Kurds and Turkmen, when they suffer casualties.
Salama said it was unfortunate that the Observatory did not want to share information with other groups in the future, as “it would offer them a higher level of credibility if they did.”
She said that the fact that regime deaths were not documented with such detail as opposition deaths, whether through lack of access or due to other difficulties, did pose a real problem.
“It’s so important to identify the perpetrators on each side, otherwise you see this culture of revenge,” she said, where “minority groups may feel they are being singled out.”
This is why transitional justice was so important, she added.
She does not envisage truth commissions as have been used in Rwanda and the Balkans, as many of the Syrian groups she was working with did not like the idea of amnesties or perpetrators being allowed to seek asylum abroad.
Instead, she sees a Syria-specific program, commenting that while there is a desire for local accountability, many groups also want to see cases referred to the International Criminal Court.
Keeping track of the war dead, she said, and specifically by keeping a record of each individual by name, was an overwhelming task, but vital for several reasons, not just the transitional justice issue but also for memorialization and compensation issues in the future.
And while there are undoubtedly gaps in the current tracking of death tolls, Salama said that the Syria conflict had been one of the best-documented conflicts of all time.
“It’s not complete, definitely, especially with the challenge of documenting the ‘other’ side, due to access and electricity shortages, and I don’t think there is complete access to countryside ... but the way that social media has been used and the quickness of response,” have been huge positives, she said.
“It is one of the better documented conflicts, and at Every Casualty we are trying to fill this normative gap,” she said, so that dignity and justice prevail.