Here are the sources that are cited to justify the main accusations against the Syrian government:
Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)
Violations Documentation Centre (VDC)
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)
None of the above sources are ‘independent’ in the sense that they function merely to provide facts, they’re all open about their agenda to overthrow the Syrian government, SNHR’s Fadel Abdul Ghani, HRW’s Kenneth Roth, and SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman all call for the imposition of a no-fly zone on behalf of the “moderate rebels” whoever they are.
The SNHR doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate its assertions about the numbers killed by government forces.
They claim to have “documented [victims] by full name, place, and date of death” however none of these can be found on their website. Although their (SNHR) August report alleges that “40% of the victim’s rate is women and children” it only contains a photo of what appears to be dead bodies of military aged men. If women and children were indeed dying in large numbers, then they would have provided photographic evidence of it.
The VDC appears more credible because it provides death lists sorted according to name, sex, province, date of death, however there are good reasons to believe the VDC is listing dead insurgents as civilians, as well as mislabelling dead government soldiers as FSA fighters.
Here are some examples.
On the 11th of February 2015 the names of 53 Jaysh Al-Islam militants killed in an SAA offensive in Douma was published by Al Masdar, which has access to information from government sources (run by my friend Leith Abou Fadel).
The first name on the Al-Masdar list was ‘Hisham Al-Sheikh Bakri’. A similar VDC record under the same town (Douma) and around the same date, can be found under the name ‘Hisham Abd al-Aziz al-Shaikh Bakri’ however this one is listed as an adult male civilian and not as a Jaish Al-Islam fighter.
I remember on the 5th of August when the leader of the pro government Shaitat tribe (mentioned in the Business Insider article), Abdel Bassit Abu Mohammad, was killed, the VDC came out with an entry under the same name BUT listed him as an FSA fighter, which is a blatant lie, and under ‘notes’ it said he was “martyred by regime’s army forces gunfire” when really he an NDF commander killed in battle against ISIS.
If they’re going to lie about the death of a prominent NDF commander, whose tribe lost seven hundred people to massacres committed by ISIS in October 2014, what makes one think thousands of other records aren’t compromised?
If one looks at the VDC’s aggregate statistics for those they claim were killed by the government, they look something like this:
This pie chart is from October 2015 so the numbers underlying these proportions have certainly increased but it’s unlikely that the proportions themselves have changed much.
Nonetheless, according to their count 81% of those allegedly killed by the government were adult males. Given their history of labelling dead insurgents as civilians it’s highly likely that many in the portion labelled ‘Adult male civilians’ were fighters not civilians.
Having said that here’s where the lines get blurred. Technically a ‘civilian’ refers to someone who is not a state combatant and as such ‘civilians’ who take up arms to fight the Syrian state are technically still considered ‘civilians’.
In any army the ratio of actual fighters to non-fighting support staff including is called the ‘tooth to tail ratio’ and the insurgency fighting the Syrian state is no different.
If one thinks about every logistical task involved in running an insurgency, from cooking for the fighters to paying their salaries, to driving supply trucks to deliver their weapons, these jobs are filled by people who are not actively fighting the government, so when they invariably get killed, they’re more likely to be listed as civilians.
The SNHR claims with no evidence that around 30-40% of those killed by the government every month are women and children, whereas the VDC, which has more evidence on its website, puts this figure for the entire war at 19%.
As for the SOHR, which is the source that dominates the western press, if Business Insider had cited their aggregate casualty figures there’s no way one would get the impression that the government is responsible for the overwhelming majority of casualties.
On the 7th of February 2015 they arrived at the following aggregate figures for the entire war:
Government and pro-govt combatants: 78,470 Anti-government combatants: 63,314 Civilians: 100,973 TOTAL: 242,757
Personally I don’t believe that the government has lost more soldiers than the insurgency for the obvious reason that the government has the airpower advantage, although insurgent artillery has always been powerful enough to destroy buildings (see an anti-government fighter’s explanation of what their artillery can do, below).
In an article I wrote in July 2013 I made the following critique of the SOHR:
“If the relatively more mechanised government army holds the military advantage against irregular guerrilla forces, why according to the SOHR have more soldiers on the government’s side (SAA & NDF) been killed than opposition fighters?”
Among other things I cited Nir Rosen who wrote the following in 2012 (which the VDC claims was the bloodiest year of fighting):
“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.”
By the way Nir Rosen is respected for his Iraq war reporting by the likes of Noam Chomsky for anyone who wants to know what his credibility is like with mainstream liberal American opinion.
A few more things to remember.
The SAA uses “barrel bombs” in areas where the civilian population left a long time ago – that’s why the populations of the major government controlled cities such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartous, and Sweida (I’ve been to the first three) have doubled or tripled in population – I learned about this first hand.
The chronology here is important.
In Aleppo for example the civilians started leaving the city to escape the fighting which in turn left insurgents exposed and increasingly vulnerable to government sniper fire because they could no longer hide amongst the people, so they began tunnelling through empty houses to avoid snipers.
This meant the SAA could no longer contain them so they resorted to “barrel bombs” which are intended to reveal hiding places so the army can move into specific streets with an insurgent presence, encircle and destroy them.
In Douma it was claimed in August that a hundred civilians were killed by the SAA in an airstrike however those claims have been contested.
In July/August 2012 the US government provided what they claimed was evidence that the Syrian army was indiscriminately bombing civilians of Anadan in Aleppo by producing the following satellite map, which ironically demonstrated the complete opposite.
To sum up, the most severe allegations of state violence are being made by the SNHR – the source with ZERO evidence to back it up; the VDC’s aggregate claims are compromised in terms of accuracy for the reasons I mentioned; and finally if the SOHR’s aggregate figures were cited there’s no way one could look at them and place almost the entire blame on the government as the Business Insider has done.