Putting the Human Rights Watch report into context
Over the last several months, media reports of the Syrian conflict have focused intensely on the regime’s aerial bombardments—especially their supposed deployment of scud missiles, cluster bombs, barrel bombs, etc. (although most media reports conveniently ignore the rebels’ use of said bombs). From these reports, one might get the impression that the deaths in Syria have been almost entirely non-combatants, and that military airstrikes have been the primary cause of these deaths.
A new report by Human Rights Watch, provocatively titled Death from the Skies, provides inadvertent insight into these assumptions. This analysis, which synthesized reports from opposition and human rights groups (much like the recent U.N. casualty report) estimates how many civilians have been killed by regime airstrikes over the course of the conflict. For both the U.N. and HRW reports, let us assume their data is more-or-less correct (although there are reasons to doubt this), and we can overlook the critical civilian v. non-combatant distinction which the HRW report fails to make— it should be asked how this data figures into the broader context of the conflict.
According to the HRW report, 4,300 civilians have been killed in the regime’s aerial bombardments from July 2012- March 2013. Utilizing the UN reports, it would seem as though the total casualties over that same period were around 50,000 lives—accordingly, the number of “civilians” killed by the regime’s airstrikes amount to less than 9% of the total casualties. And this is despite the rebels’ guerrilla tactics which aspire to hamstring the regime’s strength advantage at the expense of the civilian population. Thus, it seems the media’s fetish with the regime’s aerial bombardments has been misleading. While it is inexcusable to deny these strikes occur, focusing on them to the exclusion of the broader dynamics of the conflict obscures and distorts more than it elucidates.
A closer look at the dynamics underscores this point, revealing that most of the casualties of the conflict have likely been combatants, and a good deal of the non-combatant casualties can and must be laid at the feet of the opposition. Moreover, Bashar al-Asad has been relatively hesitant and measured in the use of force, and eager to seek out ceasefires and negotiations. It would seem as though the narrative surrounding the HRW report is undermined by their own data, once this data is contextualized: the regime is not “bloodthirsty” or “indiscriminately butchering” its own citizens. Moreover, given the risks involved in setting one up, and the relatively few people killed by regime airstrikes, a no-fly zone seems strategically incoherent.