Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers


Over the course of this analysis, we have seen that the regime may not be as “indiscriminate” as has been portrayed, nor are the rebels’ methods more ethical than those of their adversary. It seems as though the regime may be more popular than is portrayed and that the opposition may not enjoy as much support or legitimacy from the general population. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the dynamics on the ground appear to favor the regime. Though continued support of the rebels may escalate and propagate the conflict, it seems unlikely that the opposition will prevail without direct foreign military intervention. That is, the realities on the ground in Syria seem to directly contradict most narratives about the conflict.

However, the Syrian civil war is a difficult informational environment: battlefield gains, losses and alliances are extremely fluid; most primary information sources have vested interests in the outcome of the conflict (and also in how it is portrayed and perceived), and the sheer quantity of content from Syria and about Syria produce so much “noise” that it is difficult to hone in on predictive “signals.” As a result, it not clear what the U.S. interests are in this conflict, nor which course of action would best promote those interests. Given the situation’s epistemological opacity, and the high-probability of severe blowback or adverse 2nd-order effects in the event of intervention, the U.S. should proceed with prudence in terms of its commitments, projections, and especially, actions.[51]

Unfortunately, this is not the course Western nations have chosen thus far. Instead, presentation of the conflict in the public sphere has skewed towards the kind of tropes which have preceded other “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) conflicts. This is a worrying because the specter of direct external intervention has often had the effect of provoking genocidal levels of violence which may not have otherwise occurred;[52] in fact, deeper intervention from parties external to a conflict tends to prolong, inflame, and even spread a crisis rather than pushing it towards a sustainable resolution.[53]

But even should the rebels somehow emerge militarily victorious and manage to form a new government, given the presence of minorities as well as militarized groups in support of the regime, peace may prove elusive. If these populations are excluded or marginalized in the new Syrian status-quo, it is safe to predict a replay of the situation in Iraq:[54] Eight years after President Bush declared victory, the fighting has not ceased but has instead expanded to include multiple domestic and regional actors and spread throughout the country, and increasingly, across its borders. While most of the violence in Iraq is due to Sunni Arab resentment of the new system in place, it has been amplified by Sunni-Shiite sectarian fighting and increased violent competition among Shiite groups as well.

It is unclear what will happen should the al-Asad regime fall, but it is likely that a heavy commitment of international peacekeepers would be required, possibly for a long time, to ensure some measure of order and security in the aftermath. It is likely better for all parties to seek a strong negotiated settlement.[55] However, given the government’s relative strength, it is unlikely that these negotiations can plausibly exclude the regime. Even the rebels are beginning to realize this and have dropped their insistence that Bashar al-Asad step down as a precondition to negotiations.[56] Western leaders should follow suit, in keeping with their commitments in the June 2012 Geneva Communique:[57] while the agreement does obligate the government to transfer executive authority to an interim transitional body (albeit, following a viable cease-fire), it does not bar President al-Asad from taking part in that body, nor does it ban him from future participation in the government or elections. The maximalist posture of the U.S. and E.U. violates both the spirit and letter of the agreement, and according to former U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, has been largely responsible for the breakdown in mediation efforts.[58] Continued U.S. efforts secure President al-Asad’s departure prior to the start of negotiations will further erode American claims to neutrality in the conflict and, therefore, its legitimacy as a mediator between the warring parties.[59]

We may be approaching a moment when the international community must take decisive action in order to prevent Syria and the broader region from spiraling into an enduring cycle of sectarian hatred and radicalism with associated atrocities. Accordingly, policy makers must carefully consider the best outcome for the conflict and then build meaningful international consensus and commitment to actualize it. However, they must be careful not to lose sight of the will and interests of the Syrian people in the process. As Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League special envoy for Syria has maintained,[60] “Change cannot be cosmetic.… There will be a new order but I do not know who will be in that order. That’s for Syrians to decide.”


Claim #7: The Regime has been Indiscriminately Bombing Civilians

[61]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).[62] 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. [63]

HRW attempts to estimate how many civilians have been killed by regime airstrikes over the course of the conflict by synthesizing reports from opposition and human rights groups throughout Syria. For the sake of argument, let us assume their data is more-or-less correct [64]; we can also discount the aforementioned rebel tactics which attempt draw the regime’s air force towards populated civilian areas, and we can overlook the critical “civilian” v. “non-combatant” distinction which the HRW report fails to make— it should be asked how the “Death from the Skies” data figures 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 over that same period 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 period of covered by the HRW study.

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 of intervention—consistent with previous “no fly zone” attempts in Bosnia, Iraq and Libya.


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