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James Denselow

Valuing civilian life in Syria's war

To raise awareness, Syrian children posted pictures of themselves alongside Pokemon Go characters [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 July, 2016

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Comment: Shockingly little effort is made to accurately track civilian casualties, leaving Syria's people all too absent from the central narrative of the war, writes James Denselow.

Over the past week, images from Syria painted a different picture to the constant stream of tragedy and despair. Across social media, Syrian children - in response to the growing global craze - posted pictures of themselves alongside their favourite Pokemon characters asking for the world to save them, rather than the fictitious cartoon characters.

What this did, albeit only for a brief moment before the barrel bombings, mortar hits and airstrikes returned to the top of the news, was provide a brief glimpse of the humanity within the conflict, and how Syria's most vulnerable are paying the heaviest price for the continued failure to find peace in the country. It is also a reminder of how civilians, despite being disproportionately the biggest victims of modern war, are too absent from the central narrative over what's happening.

It is shocking that there is not adequate priority, international commitment or resources attributed to the accurate tracking of civilian casualties in war. Not only would this information provide a critically needed barometer as to the nature and intensity of the conflict but it would also be a tool for initial documentation of potential war crimes that could help towards genuine accountability in the future.

Although it didn't make the headlines, there was an interesting and important recommendation within the huge piece of work that was the Chilcot report into the UK's role in the Iraq war. Chilcot wrote that government "has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians. That will include not only direct civilian casualties, but also the indirect costs on civilians arising from worsening social, economic and health conditions".

This still feels like a DIY effort where a fully supported United Nations-led solution is needed

In Syria, the death toll continues to rise - but a lack of independent and authoritative statistics allows combatants to deny responsibility for their actions. The Russians famously claim not to have killed any civilians, the regime in Damascus has said that "there [are] no barrel bombs, we don't have barrels" and the Americans have also found themselves in arguments as to whether their bombs have killed civilians.

Last Tuesday, US airstrikes were reported to have killed at least 56 civilians, including 11 children in the northern city of Manbij. The strikes have led to the opposition Syrian National Coalition to call for a suspension of such operations, but they are still contested.

We only know this because of reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a group that describes itself as "not associated or linked to any political body" and is run out of a house in Coventry, England. Since the UN stopped its semi-regular estimates for the death toll in Syria in July 2013, the SOHR has become the go-to for statistics on the human toll of the conflict, and is frequently quoted in all mainstream media.

It is a complete dereliction of humanitarian principles for the civilian death toll in conflict not to be properly and professionally accounted for

The recent uptick of violence in Aleppo is powerfully encapsulated by SOHR's statistics that show that the past three months have killed at least 955 civilians, including 219 children, and injured some 6,000. SOHR's statistics are based upon a network of sources inside Syria, yet this still feels like a DIY effort where a fully supported United Nations-led solution is needed.

It is a complete dereliction of humanitarian principles for the civilian death toll in conflict not to be properly and professionally accounted for. Iraq Body Count (IBC) maintains the largest public database of violent civilian deaths since the 2003 invasion. The reason the IBC exists was born out of the then US-Commander Tommy Franks famously stating "we don't do body counts" - a legacy of the politics of the Vietnam War.

The IBC relies on open source information to paint a picture of the violence in Iraq. Its data is drawn from cross-checked media reports, hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures or records. The figures of the IBC and the SOHR are far from perfect and I'm not suggesting that the UN can suddenly provide game-changing ownership of the facts.

However, as Chilcot alluded, there is a responsibility that is lacking currently from the major powers that be towards showing a greater commitment towards civilians suffering in war.


James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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