BEIRUT -- A new count of the dead in Syria by the group that’s considered the most authoritative tracker of violence there has concluded that more than 40 percent were government soldiers and pro-government militia members.
The new numbers from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights provide a previously unseen view of the toll the civil war has taken on communities that have supported the government. They also cast doubt on the widely repeated assertion that the government of President Bashar Assad is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the deaths there.
According to the new statistics, which the Syrian Observatory passed to McClatchy by phone, at least 96,431 people have lost their lives in the more than two years of violence that’s wracked Syria.
Of those, Syrian soldiers and members of the government’s security forces account for 24,617, while members of pro-government militias make up 17,031. Taken together, those deaths account for 43.2 percent of the total recorded.
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’d picked up arms against the regime, 1,965 were rebel fighters who’d defected from the Syrian military and 2,119 were foreigners who were killed fighting on the Syrian rebels’ behalf.
The observatory’s director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the group had been unable to determine what role, if any, 2,460 of the dead had had in the fighting. Fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has recently sent hundreds of members to Syria on Assad’s behalf, account for 145 deaths, the group said.
There are no official counts of deaths in Syria, and the observatory’s new statistics are likely to be sharply disputed. Another group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which makes no effort to tally government casualties, released a report last Wednesday that claimed that it had documented 83,598 deaths, of which 75,992 were civilians and 7,606 were rebel fighters.
The observatory, however, is considered the most authoritative source for reports on the daily violence in Syria, and it’s the only group that routinely attempts to categorize deaths according to whether the victims were civilians, rebels or government fighters.
Last year, this reporter, working in Damascus , attempted to verify two observatory reports on the fighting and found that both were accurate in terms of civilian and rebel deaths. The only deaths in the events that hadn’t been reported were those of government soldiers.
Underscoring the difficulty of confirming such reports, speaking to witnesses in the neighborhoods involved required avoiding police and army checkpoints and an ever-present risk of raids by militia or government troops.
The Syrian government has granted reporters some access to the country and has allowed video and photography of military funerals, but reporting without a government minder remains difficult.
Abdurrahman said the new numbers, which represent a sharp increase over its previous report that about 80,000 people had been killed, were drawn up after it received thousands of names it hadn’t previously recorded from areas controlled by the Syrian government. The Syrian Observatory relies on a network of activists on both sides of the conflict to report and verify casualties.
“About 12,000 of them were new names,” Abdurrahman said.
He was unable to provide a detailed breakdown of deaths by month since the March 2011 beginning of the uprising, which largely has been portrayed as a government crackdown on peaceful demonstrators that became a civil war when protesters took up arms to defend themselves. The Assad government has long argued, however, that its forces came under attack almost from the beginning.
With journalists largely prevented from freely reporting in Syria, news reports about the violence generally make little mention of government casualties, and U.S. officials and others have placed the blame for the death toll largely on the Assad government. Last month, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry used reports of more than 70,000 deaths to attack Assad’s fitness for office.
“Can a person who has allegedly used gas against his own people; can a person who has killed more than 70,000, upwards of 100,000 people; can a person who has used artillery shells and missiles and Scuds and tanks against women and children and university students; can that person possibly be judged by any reasonable person to have the credibility and legitimacy to lead that country in the future? I think the answer to that is obvious,” Kerry said May 22 during a news conference with Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh.
But the new Syrian Observatory numbers suggest that that assessment may be an oversimplification of the violence in Syria, where the government routinely published the names of its dead daily until a year ago, when the toll on its security forces began rising noticeably.
Opposition spokesmen regularly publicize the deaths of civilians at the hands of government sympathizers, as in the case of the town of Banias, where, according to the observatory, pro-government forces killed 145 people last month, including women and children. Less well publicized was that the attack came after rebels had assaulted a bus that was carrying government forces.
The new toll also provides a statistical view of the role of pro-government militias in the conflict. Thousands have been trained in the last six months, and as the government presses an offensive against rebels around the cities of Damascus and Homs, there are greater reports of militia deployment. At least one, the National Defense Forces, was trained with the aid of Hezbollah.