Grisly Arithmetic – Syria

A district of Khalidiya devastated by pro-Assad forces
A district of Khalidiya devastated by pro-Assad forces

This month, we turn to the protracted humanitarian horror show in Syria, worsening by the day as the ‘reformist’ al-Assad regime throws everything gun-shaped and deadly it has into wiping out a ramshackle insurgency and half the country along with it.

Since April 2011, the Syrian government has been at war with a significant portion of the people it claims to represent. For over two years, Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus-based dictatorship has used all the force at its disposal to try and put down a rag-tag popular rebellion – a rebellion that sprouted from its own brutal handling of peaceful anti-government protests.

Indiscriminately violent, the state has liberally used air-strikes, artillery fire and cluster bombs to retaliate, killing as many civilians as armed rebels, if not considerably more. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has been able to check and verify 62,500 deaths since the conflict began, but thinks the total death toll is around double that. The UN, arguably more neutral and reserved in its estimates, still thinks upwards of 70,000 people have been killed, the majority of them civilians. British-based anti-war charity Action on Armed Violence claims roughly 34,000 Syrians were killed in 2012 and that 27,000 of them were non-combatants. The group recorded over 2,700 individual violent incidents, each one killing 32 civilians on average. If these figures are accurate, explosive weapons killed more people in Syria than anywhere in the world in 2012, exceeding tolls in perennially deadly Iraq and Afghanistan. More horrifically, the violence seems to be intensifying – the Observatory, which opposes the Assad regime but has also been critical of alleged human rights abuses by rebel fighters, predicts that March was the conflict’s deadliest month so far, seeing 6,000 killed, a third of them civilians.

Staff from Human Rights Watch spent seven days in rebel-held Aleppo. During that time they witnessed blind, indiscriminate force being used to kill unarmed civilians, intentionally or otherwise. On March the 18th, they reported, an air-strike on the Marjeh neighbourhood killed 33 civilians at least, 17 of them children. On April 3rd, state cluster bombs shredded 11 non-combatants, 7 of them children. Further attacks on Akhtarin and Hreitan, towns at least three kilometres away from the nearest rebel base, killed 18 civilians, 6 of them children.

But war brutalises everyone, and it’s not just a case of plucky rebels bravely grappling with an evil authoritarian regime. As ever, grim reality defies black-and-white Star Wars morality. Atrocities have been committed on both sides. Amnesty International have warned Western governments against what many are painting as the most viable anti-Assad option, namely supplying weapons to rebel fighters to help them win the Civil War. The insurgency, they claim, has executed captured opponents on the spot and used child soldiers, both in breach of the Geneva Convention.

Western reporting on the crisis has been typically shallow. As ever, or at least as is troublingly common, we look out at incomprehensible violence and suffering elsewhere in the world and are really only interested in how it affects us. The headlines, then, are filled with speculation about how we are going to react. Are we going to send troops? Is this going to be Iraq Mk II? Are we going to fund or arm the rebels, or, like we did in Libya, fight the air war for the rebels while they fight the ground one?

While it might blankly recite the latest death statistics, the TV news barely touches on the humanitarian disaster brewing in Syria. To state the bleeding obvious, the dead are dead. There’s precisely nothing that can be done to help them. It’s the people who are still alive that deserve the full beam of media attention, and as much aid as the West can stump up.

Three million Syrians have been forced from their homes – two million are still within Syria’s borders while a further million have fled over the border. We portray refugees as if all their problems are magically solved once they get into a camp somewhere far enough away from the fighting. But the trauma they’ve had to endure boggles the imagination.

A Syrian couple mourn their dead relatives
A Syrian couple mourn their dead relatives

For horribly many, the place they lived, the place they worked, if not everything they’ve ever known has been reduced to steaming masonry. Literally, their lives have been destroyed, in a brutally practical sense. The day-to-day existence they used to lead has been ripped to pieces by forces way outside their control. Thousands must know someone who has been killed, riddled with bullets or flattened in air-strikes – but even worse, surely, must be having to wrestle the mental agony of not knowing what’s happened to someone you care about. Is your friend or partner or child locked up, being battered by pro-Assad zealots, one of the ten thousand or so Syrians arrested by the regime since the conflict began? Or are they one of the hundreds thought to have been executed on the spot by both sides? Were they pulverised in their own home by some laser-guided death-weapon, or are they lying in bits in a shell crater?

We know the conflict’s impact has been catastrophic already. We won’t know quite how catastrophic until the fighting stops. But in January of this year, a group of Syrian economists produced a report showing that, as a result of the war, the country’s human development index had plummeted to 1993 levels. Healthcare, education and income levels have, in the space of two years, been pushed back two decades.

Millions of refugees are living without access to food, clean water and medical care. Eight thousand people pour out of the country every day, and neighbouring Lebanon is struggling to deal with the constant influx.

For their sake, media focus has to shift away from the current meandering debate over how much the West should support the rebels, or whether we should support them at all. Yes, we need to do everything we can to end the horrific violence. Preferably that would involve bringing Assad in alive and putting him on trial for war crimes. But the humanitarian catastrophe in the refugee camps is urgent and, as the regime tries to push its current advantage all the way to bloody victory, is only going to get worse You can donate to the Red Cross’s Syria appeal here.