It’s March 2011. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolts have been and gone, while the Libyan episode is underway, but still relatively fresh. The media had already been citing deaths during the regional unrest when anti-government protests erupted in Syria. Naturally, death tolls began to measure the mounting scale of the conflict and international humanitarian concern kicked in when the upshot of security force violence was gruesome footage and images of daily killings.
During the unrest, Al Arabiya has reported a daily Syrian death toll in which the television news channel on most days cites the Syrian Revolution General Commission and Local Coordinating Committees (LCC); both umbrella opposition organizations with activists on the ground.
But the most prominent death counts have been tracked by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which seems likely to be the most reliable source of information on the toll. Why? Because they name their three sources for collecting numbers as: the Violations Documenting Center (VDC), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian Shuhada website. The first U.N. count was reported in September with numbers that varied from around 2,400 to 3,800 victims, notes Middle East political analyst Sharmine Narwani.
But to add to the undeniable confusion, Narwani has posed these apt questions: “How do they make accurate counts across Syria every single day? ... How have the deaths been verified? Who verifies them and do they have a vested interest? Are the dead all civilians? Are they pro-regime or anti-regime civilians? Do these lists include the approximately 2,000 dead Syrian security forces? Do they include members of armed groups? How does the list-aggregator tell the difference between a civilian and a plain-clothes militia member?”
On Thursday, an LCC spokeswoman said the numbers have exceeded 9,700 and are “fast approaching 10,000.” The figure which has been quoted by the U.N. General Assembly in early March 2012 start was 8,000, and I will not pull a Bashar al-Assad and say the U.N. is not a “credible institution,” as he told Barbara Walters. But could the U.N. figures be cautious estimates?
“The figures were probably higher [than what we announced] but it was what we could estimate at the time,” says Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office.
“We independently verified information by speaking to our sources on the ground and by going to neighboring countries to speak to people that have fled Syria. From there we tried to build a picture of the deaths, and make estimates but it was never a very accurate number.”
Shamdasani said the last estimate that the U.N. Human Rights office was able to give at the end of December was 5,000. Since then, it has got too “difficult.”
“It has become so difficult to verify, initially we were getting lists of names, but now it’s on a larger scale. Whether it’s 5,000, 8,000 or 9,000, it’s too many.”
While doing my research, I realized just how much the international media was confused over whether the U.N. had stopped counting or not. The dates these articles were published would not correspond with U.N. announcements, and numbers that may have been only reported by activists at the time, were still being attributed to the U.N. Human Rights, even after they had halted their count.
When asked to comment about recent figures released from the LCC and thoughts about the opposition’s claims that they are verified, Shamdasani declined to answer, adding “it would not be fair to them to speak about it.”
Now, to question the opposition death toll claims, is to enter murky territory. A narrative that has played for a while now is the uncertainty of activist groups’ reports about killings and security force shelling and whether or not the entire truth has surfaced.
“If anyone would like to challenge our claims, they can; we have activist groups on the ground and teams, mostly doctors, to independently verify the deaths,” says Mousab Azzawi, chief coordinator of the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights.
“We provide names not numbers, with a date of birth, where and how they died, followed by a statement, a death certificate or a video to verify their death. If we do not have these things then we do not report it. Our verification process follow the criteria of the International Criminal Court and we are prepared to stand in a court to say how we have verified each death with evidence,” he added.
Azzawi provided me the group’s “strict methodology to verify the names of the martyrs.” It included:
“1 - Getting the detailed information about the names of martyrs from the revolutionary councils of Syrian Revolution General Commission and the Coordinators of the Syrian Revolution in the Syrian villages, cities, and provinces attached with all available details and videos documenting the events.
“2 - All received information has been subjected to a comprehensive process of authentication as to guarantee its credibility by the 246 members of Syrian Network for Human Rights Network in all of the Syrian provinces. Most of these members are doctors, lawyers, and university professors who have been involved in the group’s activities since 2007.
These members check all information they get from the relatives of the martyrs, their families, or their close friends; and certainly make the prior condition of the consensus of two people who do not know each other about any information so that it can be verified and included in the list of martyrs.
“3 - Getting written or filmed testimonies from the families of the martyrs, their closest friends, or the doctors who treated them before they died or wrote their death certificates. These testimonies document all available information and are included in the personal file of each victim.”
And there is even a clause within their methodology to ensure each death verification is regardless of the deceased person’s loyalty or beliefs.
With all this in mind however, it is still important to address a news reporting culture which has been troubling me during reports of the unrest; a culture that relies on opposition group comment without questions, immediately assumes that armed opposition groups only carried weapons to protect innocent civilians and that deaths could be blamed on what has become a valid but nonspecific term, the “security forces.” The mainstream media has gotten too used to this label. If reports had been more specific since the start of the unrest, perhaps we would have found out that a particular branch of the country’s security is more at blame than another. In any case, let’s get back to the tolls.
“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes,” Narwani quotes an American journalist as saying.
“But there are images of dead children!” I hear you cry. Yes, there have been undoubtedly many innocent civilian deaths, but it is inaccurate reports that need to be scrutinized, such as tolls reported alongside “there’s-something-missing” explanations. At times, the Syrian activists would be quoted as not knowing the circumstances behind a list of deaths they had provided the media with because of the chaotic situation in the country (as seen with the Syrian Observatory reports on Feb. 27 when they reported that 144 people were killed across the country, mostly in Homs, but no one had identified the dead or knew where they were from, and therefore the toll could not be independently verified, a news agency article stated.)
It is no longer enough to report a death toll without mentioning the circumstances of the attack, particularly now as reports have surfaced about armed opposition groups targeting Syrian civilians and committing human rights abuses, alongside allegations that the regime forces are being increasingly provoked by more armed activists entering the country.
These claims are relatively new however, and while the overriding narrative remains applicable to the unrest (that the Syrian government is pursuing a policy of eliminating armed groups and anti-government rhetoric in a sweep of the country) it is still important to raise a brow over unverified reports, at the very least. Seems obvious? Well, as long as the world continues to address the Syrian conflict within the context of pre-determined “goodies and the “badies” then there is no room left for questions.
And ultimately, claims with more substance would push away allegations from Narwani and others that cry propaganda; those that say it is all just to keep Syria in the headlines or to raise pressure for foreign intervention in the country.
(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)