I think the Assad regime is probably almost as bad as commonly portrayed, and none of this is meant in any way to deny that the regime has killed tens of thousands of civilians or more or to justify their war crimes. But I can’t reconcile the numbers with the mainstream depiction of the war by the likes of Roger Cohen, Nicholas Kristof, or other interventionists (who say nothing about our assistance to the Saudi war on Yemen, which is one massive war crime. So much for their humanitarian motives). Everyone agrees that the jihadists are the best fighters on the rebel side and that many of the “moderates” are similar in ideology and that they have genocidal attitudes, and they have supposedly killed over 100,000 Syrian soldiers and allied militia, yet–
1. When intervention isn’t intervention.
Supposedly the problem is we haven’t supplied enough aid. How the hell did the rebels manage to do so well against forces with tanks, artillery and an air force? Has this ever happened without massive amounts of outside armaments? The Max Fisher piece in the New York Times shows, without spelling it out, that the mainstream lament is wrong. The war has lasted this long and caused so many deaths precisely because outsiders on both sides keep intervening. One can’t help but notice that to liberal hawks US interventions that cause massive death tolls simply aren’t acknowledged and the answer to a failed intervention is more intervention.
2. The kinder gentler jihadists.
The rebels have killed 100,000 armed opponents, yet according to mainstream Western sources they have only killed a small fraction of the civilians. Is this true? Suppose it is. What that suggests is that the Syrian regime has done a good job shielding most of those who would be exterminated from the jihadis, even if they themselves are guilty of massive war crimes. Or are we supposed to think the jihadis are compassionate? Alternatively, perhaps most or all of our information comes from pro-rebel sources and the jihadis have killed far more civilians than we are led to believe. For instance, maybe some of the dead militia and Syrian soldiers in the Syrian Observatory figures were actually unarmed civilians accused of regime support. It would be amazing in a brutal civil war if rebels didn’t murder civilians accused of supporting the other side and this is even before we take into account the genocidal ideology many of the rebels are reported to have.
3. Cited death tolls.
For a long time the media tended to rely on the figures supplied by the pro rebel Syrian Observatory. The Wikipedia article I linked above gives their yearly totals and a breakdown by faction–at present, roughly 100,000 armed dead on the pro government side, roughly the same on the anti government side, and about 85,000 civilians. In recent months, however, various groups estimate the true death toll is close to 500,000 and so that is now the figure commonly cited in the press.
Compare this to Iraq. The mainstream press press commonly cited the figures of Iraq Body Count, which was an actual count of civilian deaths that could be verified with reasonable certainty from media accounts. By the late 00’s this number was over 100,000 and now is closer to 200,000. IBC has also estimated the death toll including fighters and that figure is 250,000. There were other ways of counting the dead– notably the Johns Hopkins team which found 100,000 by 2004 and 600,000 by 2006 using surveys, and more recently another study found about 500,000 dead as of 2011, also using a survey. What number does the press usually use? Generally, I see the “over 100,000” figure. Just look at this New York Times editorial from 2011; it says “tens of thousands” of Iraqi deaths, an amazingly low figure they probably got from either the US government or some think tank.
So a conservative count of civilians only is used for a war where America is mostly responsible (and too small even using IBC data), while the highest figure available is used for Syria with the American role generally papered over. The press, if it wants to use the smallest reasonable figure for Iraq, should use the 250,000 of IBC, since they don’t exclude fighters when citing Syrian estimates. And even IBC, which was very critical of the Johns Hopkins study, would probably agree that the total violent death toll is higher than their figure, and that is before one includes the deaths caused by the collapse of civilian infrastructure.
4. Comparisons to Israel in Gaza
Nobody does this, so I will. Of course the 2014 war in Gaza only lasted several weeks and was conducted against a population of only 2 million and therefore the death toll is 100-200 times smaller. All the same, the Western press seems to have two different standards here. When fighting jihadis and “moderate” rebels, the Syrian government bombs urban areas, killing civilians, and this is unequivocally condemned in Western media. Israel employs the same tactics and we hear much debate about whether it was justified because, allegedly, Hamas used civilians as human shields or stored weapons or dug tunnels or whatever. Often the defenses of Israel were clearly false, but they were always taken seriously. The issue doesn’t even come up with Syria– no one in the mainstream Western press even bothers to make the same arguments or refute them, because when Assad bombs urban areas he isn’t a Westerner and isn’t our ally and therefore he is obviously a war criminal, unlike when Israel does it.
Suppose Israel faced a combination of Al Qaeda and “moderate” rebels heavily supplied with both men and material from outside, openly declaring that they would massacre Jews and Christians if they won. Suppose they had a serious chance of victory. How would Israel fight such a war, given how they fight in vastly less serious circumstances (for them)?
Furthermore, go back to the kinder gentler jihadist notion. If the claims are to be believed, the rebels in Syria have managed to kill 100,000 heavily armed opponents and (supposedly) a much smaller number of civilians. The Israelis killed about 1500 civilians and several hundred Hamas fighters. Interesting. If one takes the Western press at face value (probably not a good idea), the Syrian rebels, including Al Qaeda, are fighting their war far more humanely than the IDF. Do I believe this? Not really, but the pro-Syrian-rebel American columnists should. And Hamas was only able to kill 66 IDF soldiers and 6 civilians. This is what you’d expect from a lightly armed force with essentially no outside help fighting a military with tanks, artillery, and an air force. Again, the fact that the Syrian rebels have been so successful in killing their armed opponents disproves the notion that the poor rebels are fighting without outside help against hopeless odds.