About one in 10 of the people who have been killed so far in the Syrian civil war are children. Of those 11,400 people under age 17 known to have died, the largest number—2,233—died in Aleppo Governate, Syria’s most populous province and among its most restive. Nonetheless, on a per capita basis the worst place in Syria to be a child right now is Daraa (to the right of the Golan Heights and bordering Jordan), where one in 400 children have been killed during the uprising. In comparison, just under one in a thousand children in Aleppo have died. So report Hamit Dardagan and Hana Salama in a new white paper from the NGO Oxford Research Group (“committed to the principle that every life lost to armed violence should be properly recognized”).
In war it used to be that casualty counts were all about the battlefield—how many of my soldiers died killing how many of your soldiers. It was a useful metric for combat prowess, but generals then started looking at a more comprehensive set of figures that included how many soldiers were dying of disease. It’s only been recently that any army could count on losing more guys to the enemy than to General Microbe. (Here’s an interesting short book published after the U.S. Civil War showing how “fit” soldiers die in much greater proportions than their civilian counterparts.) The annals of warfare include numerous instances where invaders were stopped in their tracks by dysentery or dengue fever before ever meeting the main forces of their human foe.
Somewhere along the line, we started paying attention to the civilian dead and displaced, first in broad brushstrokes, and usually to point out the beastliness of our foe, and then in greater granularity. The purpose of the counting also morphed along the lines of look how well our ethnic cleansing is progressing, to look how awful our ethnic cleansing has been, to Hey, look at these figures. We ought to stop ethnic cleansing.
Granted, ethnic cleansing is just one face of conflict. But generalizing from that, awareness of the plight of non-combatants has grown alongside the growth of the media, especially electronic media, along with how they died, whether from bullets or bacteria. It’s not just atrocities, although those grab headlines, but the drip-drip-drip of daily conflict that engage those counting.
Beyond just the general instincts to have an accurate historical record and to grant every casualty the dignity of being recognized, it seems there’s a feeling that by outlining the general beastliness of all war, maybe we’ll indulge in it a bit less. That’s definitely a thread in the tapestry woven by the Oxford Research Group, which casts a wary eye on force—even when it’s used to stop more indiscriminate use of force.
The initial optimism over lives saved through ‘liberal’ military intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone was rapidly lost in the mountains of Afghanistan and cities of Iraq. The debate continues over the impact of NATO air strikes on Libya.
Military action is inherently dangerous to those targeted. To think that military planners can exclude civilians from targets is a fallacy. Weapons may be smarter now than ever before but military and leadership assets are often deliberately sited in urban and residential areas. Even in the most rural areas, data suggests that US drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan still kill many civilians. Such ‘collateral’ casualties also inspire retaliation and radicalisation in cycles of violence.
Between March 2011 and this August, the authors write, it’s believed that 113,735 people, both civilians and combatants, have died violently from the war. I’ve written before about efforts to get accurate numbers on deaths in Syria; this estimate is drawn from the same on-the-ground sources providing raw data to those analysts.
Whether the raw numbers are absolutely accurate is another matter. In two governates where the government still holds sway (Latakia and Tartus), the percentage of children killed compared to the total is suspiciously low, the authors write, possibly because the counters are usually pro-rebel and may not be as diligent about highlighting their own side’s failings. “At least one major independent report lists a number of killings, including summary executions, of children by rebel forces in Latakia in August 2013 that were undocumented in these databases when accessed.”
“Broad but important patterns can be observed and established with reasonable certainty even where documentation is neither complete nor perfect,” Dardagan and Salama write. “It is on such consistent patterns that this study is focused, with specific attention to the impacts that various weapons and methods of war have on children.”
In 93 percent of the child deaths, the specific violent cause could be determined. The most common killer—in 7,557 cases—was an explosion, whether from an aerial bomb, artillery shell, or planted device.
If you were age 12 or younger and killed, chances were roughly four out of five times an explosive was the cause. For girls of any age, who make up about a third of the deceased, the odds were three out of four that explosions were the cause.
Lots of teenagers are known to have died from explosives—1,395—but that’s half the toll for that age group. Small arms—rifles and handguns—killed almost as many teens. It’s easy to imagine that older kids are out on the streets and caught in crossfires, but in fact a big percentage of these deaths by bullet are from summary execution or sniper fire—both very intentional.
The report finds that kids are subject to all the horrors that adults face, including chemical weapons, torture, and, as noted, summary execution, all of which suggests kids are not just collateral damage but an intentional part of the bag. One bright note, according to the authors, is that these methods are “atypical” of the general and more impersonal carnage. Despite the West’s attention to the reported chemical attack at on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, the actual toll from that and any other chemical incidents is imprecise. The Oxford group says 128 children died in Ghouta, almost evenly split between boys and girls. (The United States has estimated that 1,429 people of all ages died.)
This clearly won’t be the final word on casualties in Syria, or even the definitive word on this time frame of the conflict. The numbers are probably low and open to individual dispute, but, quibbles aside, they give a solid idea of what’s really going on in Syria.