Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers


[1] Megan Price, Jeff Klingner & Patrick Ball. “Preliminary Statistical Analysis of Documentation of Killings in the Syrian Arab Republic.” Benetech Human Rights Program, 2 January 2013.

[2] Alan J. Kuperman. “The Moral Hazards of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans.” International Studies Quarterly. Vol. 52, No. 1: pp. 49-80.

[3] James D. Fearon. “Iraq’s Civil War.” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 82, No. 2 (March/ April 2007).

[4] Azmat Kahn. “On the 30th Anniversary of Hama Massacre, Syrian Troops Lock Down City.” PBS Frontline, 2 February 2012.

[5] Hussein Agha & Robert Malley. “This is Not a Revolution.” New York Review of Books. Vol. 59, No. 17 (November 2012).

[6] e.g. “Syria Death Toll ‘At Least 33,000.” AFP News, 13 October 2012.

[7] Sharmine Narwani. “What Syrian Death Tolls Really Tell Us.” The Guardian, 15 February 2013.

[8] Calculations drawn from SOHR’s January 1, 2013 update:
At that time, according to their calculations, the death toll was as follows:

Total: 46,068 deaths
32,216 civilians (non-combatants and militia fighters)
11,487 Syrian Arab Army soldiers
1,535 military defectors (“Free Syrian Army”)
830 unidentified people

[9] Price et al., p. 9

[10]Syria Regional Refugee Response.” UN High Commissioner on Refugees, accessed 2 February 2013.  

[11]Syria Displaced Number 2.5m, says Red Crescent.” BBC News, 12 November 2012.

[12] Michael Peel & Javier Blas. “Syria’s Food Shortages Worsening, U.N. Says.” Washington Post, 23 January 2013.

[13] Zeina Khodr. “Stalemate Stokes Anger at Rebels in Aleppo.” Al-Jazeera English, 11 December 2012.

[14] People tend to become expatriates or refugees precisely because they do not “fit in,” typically because they hail from socio-political minority groups. For instance, most Iranians one will find in the U.S. will be families who fled following the overthrow of Reza Shah Pahlavi. They will tend to hate the religious government of Iran, as may their family and friends “back home.” But this does not entail that most Iranians want to overturn the rule-by-jurist system. In fact, most indicators point the opposite direction: Fareed Zakaria. “The Fantasy of an Iranian Revolution.” Washington Post, 21 June 2010.

[15] Michael R. Gordon. “The Strategy to Secure Iraq did not Foresee a 2nd War.” New York Times, 19 October 2004.

[16] E.g. Cajsa Wikstrom. “Syria: ‘A Kingdom of Silence.’” Al-Jazeera English. 9 February 2011.

Thousands Rally in Support of Syria’s Assad.” Al-Jazeera English, 12 October 2011.

Anthony Shadid. “Thousands Turn Out for Assad.” New York Times, 21 June 2011.

Abagail Fielding-Smith. “Assad Supporters Throng Syria’s Streets.” Financial Times, 15 March 2012.

[17] Joseph Holliday. “Syria’s Armed Opposition.” Institute for the Study of War, March 2012.

[18]New Western Intelligence: Syrian Rebels Don’t Have the Numbers to Win.” DEBKAfile, 15 October 2012.

[19] Source: CIA World Factbook

[20] Gert Van Langendonk & Sarah Lynch. “Syrian Activists to Rebels: Give Us Our Revolution Back.” Christian Science Monitor, 16 April 2012.

Stephen Starr. “Rebel Violence Drains Support of Fellow Syrians.” Bloomberg View, 12 September 2012.

[21] The only protest attributed at having drawn these numbers was the March 25, 2011 “Day of Rage” in Daraa which is said to have sparked the rebellion. While video of the event does appear to show thousands of people protesting, gauging crowds is notoriously difficult, and there is no real substantiation to claims that the crowd reached tens of thousands, or even a hundred thousand. The source for the 100,000 claim is a political activist in Daraa (possessing a vested interest in inflating the size of the demonstration).

Dozens of Syrians Reported Killed in Daraa.” CNN, 26 April 2011.

[22] Anne Barnard & Hwaida Saad. “Rebellion at Stalemate, Waiting for Undecided Syrians to Make a Move.” New York Times, 4 January 2013.

ADDENDUM: Shortly after the publication of this essay, a NATO report noted a sharp rise in pro-Assad and anti-rebel sentiment in Syria resultant from the conflict’s continued deterioration—commensurate with the predictions here. The study, which compiled data from West-sponsored activists and organizations across Syria, concluded that 70% of the population supported the Assad government, 20% were neutral or torn, and only 10% of Syrians actively supported the rebellion.

NATO data: Assad Winning War for Syrians’ Hearts and Minds.” World Tribune, 31 May 2013.

[23] Tariq al-Abed. “FSA in Northern Syria Devoid of Structure, Authority.” Trans. Naria Tanoukhi. Al-Monitor, 30 November 2012.

[24] Jonathan Steele. “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know it from Western media.” The Guardian, 17 January 2012.

[25] Musa al-Gharbi. “The Lion’s Advocate: Working Through Misconceptions of the Syrian Uprising.” SISMEC, 28 July 2012.

[26] Anne Barnard & Hwaida Saad. “Cajoling, Drugging and More as Rebels Try to Try to Draw Defectors.” New York Times, 3 October 2012.

[27] Karen Laub. “New Syria Rebel Chief Describes Clandestine Life.” Associated Press, 19 December 2012.

[28] Nader Ezzedine. “Syrian Army May Have Set Damascus Trap for Rebels.” Trans. Sahar Ghoussoub. Al-Monitor, 14 December 2012.

[29] The “core” of the rebellion seems to be rural agrarians who were already suffering immensely due to a protracted drought, and were further alienated as a result of Bashar al-Asad’s economic liberalization scheme which funneled even more assets out of the rural areas and into metropolitan centers.

Raymond Hinnebusch. “Syria: From ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ to Revolution?” International Affairs. Vol. 88, No. 1: pp. 95-113.

*updated source* Aron Lund. “Drought, Corruption and War: Syria’s Agricultural Crisis.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 18 April 2014.

As explored in note 31 below, most of the areas which benefitted from these reforms remain loyal to the regime—encompassing the majority of the Syrian population. However, while the number of Syrians who support the rebellion may be small, they are distributed across a much wider swath of territory than the pro-government majority.

[30] For a succinct explanation of why the Al-Asad regime is far more durable than most analysts believe see:

Joshua Landis. “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013.” Middle East Policy. Vol. 19, No. 1: pp. 72-84.

[31]Syria Ex-Premier Says Assad Controls Only 30% of Country.” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 2012.

[32] Martin Chulov & Helen Pidd. “Defector Admits to WMD Lies that Triggered Iraq War.” The Guardian, 15 February 2011.

[33] Perhaps the easiest way to underscore this point is to compare maps of Syria’s population density to current maps estimating government v. rebel held areas. See:

Syria: Population Density and Demography.” Gulf 2000 Project (Columbia University), 2013.

Map of the Dispute in Syria.” New York Times, 12 March 2013.

[34] *updated source* Raja Abdulrahim. “In Syria, U.N. Agency Distributes Most Food in Government-Held Areas.” Los Angeles Times, 22 April 2014.

[35] Kareem Fahim & Hwaida Saad. “Envoy to Syria Warns of Hellish Fiefs with Huge Toll.” New York Times, 30 December 2012.

[36] Mohammad Ballout. “Civilian Brigades are Helping Syrian Army Control Territory.” Trans. Tyler Huffman. Al-Monitor, 15 October 2012.

[37] Gaith Abdul-Ahad. “Syrian Rebels Sidetracked by Scramble for Spoils of War.” The Guardian, 27 December 2012.

[38] Julian Borger. “Syria Rebels’ Arms Supplies and Finances Drying Up Despite Western Pledges.” The Guardian, 4 January 2013.

[39] Patrick J. McDonnell. “Syria Rebels Appear to be Shifting Strategy in Damascus.” Los Angeles Times, 7 November 2012.

[40] Ed Husain. “Al-Qaeda’s Specter in Syria.” U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, 6 August 2012.

[41] Bill Roggio. “Suicide Bomber Kills Syrian Defense Minister, Top Security Officials.” Long War Journal, 18 July 2012.

[42] Sahar Ghoussoub. “Al-Qaeda Affiliate Claims Responsibility for Aleppo Blasts.” Al-Monitor, 4 October 2012.

[43] Tim Arango, Anne Barnard & Hwaida Saad. “Syrian Rebels Tied to al-Qaeda Play Key Role in War.” New York Times, 8 December 2012.

[44] Jamie Dettmer. “Syria’s Rebel Rivalry Between Jihadists and FSA.” The Daily Beast, 12 January 2013.

[45] Andrea Rosa. “Rebel Leader Says Syria on Path to Becoming Islamic State.” Times of Israel, 30 November 2012.

[46] Roy Licklider. “The Consequences of Negotiated Settlements in Civil Wars: 1945-93.” American Political Science Review. Vol. 89, No. 3: pp. 681-90.

[47] Craig Whitlock & Carol Morello. “U.S. Plans for Possibility that Assad Could Lose Control of Chemical Arms Cache.” Washington Post, 16 December 2012.

[48] David E. Sanger. “Rebel Arms Flow is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria.” New York Times, 14 October 2012.

James Risen, Mark Mazzetti, and Charles S. Schmidt. “U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell into Jihadis’ Hands.” New York Times, 5 December 2012.

Joby Warrick. “In Jordanian Terror Plot, Officials See Hand of Resurgent Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Washington Post, 2 December 2012.

[49] Denise Natali. “Islamists in Syria Empowering the PKK.” Al-Monitor, 31 December 2013.

[50] Liz Sly & Ahmed Ramadan. “Beirut Assassination Heightens Fears of Syrian Violence Embroiling Lebanon.” Washington Post, 20 October 2012.

[51] Nassim N. Taleb. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.

Nassim N. Taleb. Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. 2nd Edition. Random House, 2010.

Nate Silver. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t. Penguin Press, 2012.

[52] Alan J. Kuperman. “Rethinking the Responsibility to Protect.” The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. Winter/Spring 2009: pp. 19-29.

[53] David E. Cunningham. “Veto Players and Civil War Duration.” American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 50, No. 4: pp. 875-92.

[54] Kristen A. Harkness. “Dangers to Democritization: Military Responses to Constitutional Changes of Leadership in Africa.” American Political Science Association, 19 July 2010. Miranda Sissons & Abdulrazzaq al-Saiedi. “A Bitter Legacy: Lessons of De-Baathification in Iraq,” International Center for Transitional Justice, March 2013.

[55] Virginia P. Fortna. “Scraps of Paper? Agreements and the Durability of Peace,” International Organization. Vol. 57, No. 2: pp. 337-72.
Daina Chiba. “The Strength of Cease-fire Agreements and the Duration of Postwar Peace.” Working Paper, 21 August 2012.
Christina Sciabarra & Faten Ghosen. “Are Needs Negotiable? The Role of Participation, Security, and Recognition in Keeping the Peace After Civil Wars End.Working Paper, 2011.

[56] Mohammad Ballout. “Syrian Opposition Figures Call for Dialogue with Regime.” Trans. Kamal Fayad. Al-Monitor, 21 January 2013.

[57]Action Group for Syria: Final Communique.” United Nations, 30 June 2012.

[58] Laura Rozen. “Kofi Annan Faults West for Breakdown in Syria Mediation Efforts.” Al-Monitor, 19 October 2012.

[59] Lakhdar Brahimi & Salman Ahmed. “In Pursuit of Sustainable Peace: Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation.” Center on International Cooperation (New York University), May 2008.

[60] Lyse Doucet. “Brahimi has ‘No Illusions’ about ‘Toughest Yet’ Syria Mission.” BBC News, 3 September 2012.

[61] Addendum originally published by SISMEC 13 April 2013, entitled “Distortions, Lies and ‘Death from the Skies.’” It has been included here because draws upon the same themes, and relies upon the same methods, as the main essay. Moreover, the addendum has been highly influential in its own right: its central novel statistic (less than 10% of Syria’s casualties are resultant from regime airstrikes) has been quoted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in explaining why a no-fly zone may not be worthwhile.

See: Anna Murline. “Why Pentagon Has Doubts About No-Fly Zone Over Syria.” Christian Science Monitor, 29 May 2013.

[62] Richard Spencer. “Syrian Rebels Using Barrel Bombs to Attack the Regime.” The Telegraph, 11 November 2012.

[63] Ole Solvang & Anna Neistat. “Death from the Skies: Deliberate and Indiscriminate Air Strikes on Civilians.” Human Rights Watch, 10 April 2013.

[64] For the sake of intellectual charity, we will assume HRW is a neutral party in the conflict. However, it should be noted that HRW has often been criticized for its inappropriately close connections with the U.S. government, and exhibiting a bias towards R2P interventions–both in terms of their methods and their analyses.

*updated source* “Nobel Peace Laureates to Human Rights Watch: Close Your Revolving Door to U.S. Government.” AlterNet, 12 May 2014.
Nobel Peace Laureates Slam Human Rights Watch’s Refusal to Cut Ties with U.S. Government.” AlterNet, 8 July 2014.

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