Distortions, Lies, and “ Death from the Skies ”

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game” highlighted critical problems with the ways the Syrian Civil War is discussed Western circles. Among the key findings: even if we assume that the casualty counts of the conflict are accurate, most discussions of the death toll conflate non-military defector combatants and non-combatants as “civilians” in order to exaggerate the extent to which the Syrian regime is “indiscriminately slaughtering its own people.” This is a major problem, as most of the rebel forces would count as “civilians” in virtue of being non-military, and there are also a growing number of civilian militias aligned with the government. When this oversight is accounted for, it seems as though a majority of those killed (up to 75%) are likely combatants.

Similarly, blame for all of the “civilian” deaths are laid at the feet of the government, despite the fact that many non-combatants were certainly killed by rebel forces, both intentionally and unintentionally. And many other deaths cannot be principally ascribed to either side. It seems as though most of the discourse surrounding casualties of the civilian conflict are aimed towards underscoring the need for intervention rather than accurately conveying the dynamics “on the ground” in Syria.

As part of this propaganda campaign, 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 similar munitions via alternative delivery systems). Again, 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 estimates how many civilians have been killed by regime airstrikes over the course of the conflict.

For the sake of argument, let us assume their data is more-or-less correct. We can ignore that rebel forces increasingly try to draw the Syrian air force towards heavily populated civilian areas in order to either hamstring the regime, or else draw others to their cause in the event of collateral damage. Finally, we can also overlook the critical “civilian” v. “non-combatant” distinction which the HRW report fails to make. Under these generous conditions, how does the “Death from the Skies” data figure into the broader context of the conflict?

According to the report, 4,300 civilians have been killed in the regime’s aerial bombardments from July 2012- March 2013. Utilizing the U.N. commissioned report on Syrian casualties, it would seem as though the total death toll from the conflict over the period in question was around 50,000. This means the number of “civilians” killed by the regime’s airstrikes amount to less than 10% of the deaths during the timeframe covered by the HRW study—and this despite the rebels’ guerrilla tactics which aspire to hamstring the regime’s aerial strength advantage at the expense of the civilian population.

Thus, it seems the media obsession with regime airstrikes obscures and distorts more than it elucidates about the dynamics of the conflict, and the narrative surrounding the HRW report is undermined by its own data. These findings also suggest that oft-discussed “no fly zones” would not be nearly as effective in reducing Syrian bloodshed as predicted by advocates for intervention–consistent with previous no-fly zone attempts in Bosnia, Iraq and Libya.