Just days after peace talks to end the Syrian war collapsed, a new report from a formerly Damascus-based research outfit has tallied the conflict’s death toll at over 470,000 people — with nearly 11.5 percent of Syria’s pre-war population killed or injured since March 2011.
The alarming new figures, from the United Nations-supported Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), are nearly double the 250,000 lives last tallied by the U.N. That number was last updated in mid-2014, when the U.N. announced it would give up trying to count the bodies in Syria due to lack of access and impossible-to-confirm reports coming out of conflict zones.
One possible explanation for why the SCPR numbers are so much higher than other estimates, including those from the conflict-monitoring Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is that researchers also tallied “indirect” deaths from the conflict. Most of the 470,000 dead were killed in violence, but roughly 70,000 died from inadequate medical services to treat disease and malnourishment, which are especially rampant among those displaced by the war, the SCPR said.
Rabie Nasser, the report’s author, told the Guardian that his team used “very rigorous methods” on the ground, adding that U.N. figures were too low “due to lack of access to information during the crisis” — a problem the U.N. readily acknowledges.
The SCPR, which purports to be an impartial, nongovernmental agency, has relocated from Damascus to Beirut in recent months to continue working. Alluding to the severely hostile environment for all independent human rights and media reporting within Syria, and the regime's penchant for torturing and killing dissidents, the Guardian noted that the center is still “careful not to criticize the Syrian government or its allies,” including Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. In the past, however, the U.N. Development Plan has deemed the center credible enough to collaborate on Syria-related research.
Regardless, findings in the report, which spanned Syria’s economic and human devastation, fit a pattern of spiraling destruction in the country. In the week since the latest effort to rekindle Syria’s peace process collapsed, Syrian and Russian planes have waged a brutal offensive on the devastated city of Aleppo. The aerial bombing has inched the rebels back, while sending upwards of 60,000 people fleeing toward the Turkish border.
On Thursday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called the violence in Aleppo “shocking” and “horrendous,” accusing both sides of “constantly sinking to new depths, without apparently caring in the slightest about the death and destruction they are wreaking across the country.” Meanwhile, media reports of Syria’s war struggle to describe how the bloodshed is somehow worsening: “Syria, already a catastrophe, seems on the verge of an uncontrollable disaster,” read a recent Washington Post headline.
The SCPR report put some numbers on that misery. According to the center, the average life expectancy in Syria has plummeted from 70.5 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.4 years — on par with deeply impoverished, war-torn Somalia. By the end of 2015, 45 percent of Syria’s 22 million pre-war population was displaced or living as refugees outside the country. According to SCPR's projections for the end of 2015, the poverty rate will reach 85 percent, with 69 percent living in extreme poverty.
Since 2011, $163 billion has been slashed from the country’s GDP, largely due to the violence, refugee crisis, disrupted trade routes and loss of investment. Across the country, power cuts leave even the most stable neighborhoods in Damascus and the Alawite coastlands with just a few hours of electricity daily.
Still, the soaring costs of Syria’s war will do little to persuade any of its myriad warring factions — including a divided opposition and the radical, nonaligned Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — to pursue a compromise. After five years of sacrifice, Syria’s rebels refuse to lay down their arms unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agrees to resign. That looks ever more unlikely since last year’s Russian military intervention no Assad's behalf, which has begun to pay dividends on the ground, including in the critical northern battleground of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, foreign agendas in Syria continue to dictate the terms of diplomacy. Those in the opposition camp, including the United States, Gulf Arab States and Turkey, accuse Russia of bombarding the rebels — and civilians trapped in their midst — to grant Assad more leverage at future peace talks.
Washington, which backs Syria's political opposition and has armed certain vetted "moderate" rebels, has called this week for an immediate ceasefire to end hostilities across the country, so that peace talks can proceed in good faith. But, in a microcosm of the geopolitical rivalries that undermine the push for peace, Moscow has rebuffed that call. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday submitted his proposal for a March 1 start date instead. With the regime confident it can keep rolling and the White House unconvinced that more aid for the rebels would do anything but prolong the war, the outlook for even that latter date may not be achievable.