Trump has been commendably criticized for citing bogus figures on everything from Moslem terrorists to the number of crimes committed by african americans. This criticism has been performed by the press, which takes great bride in shooting down certain false figures.
But there are other false figures, or dubious ones, that the liberal press revel in. One that I have seen reported a lot, as though it settled the case, is the figure, coming, vaguely, from the “non-partisan” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that Assad’s regime is responsible for an amazing 95 percent of civilian Syrian deaths. We have it on the word of Glen Newby, for instance, writing for London Review of Books, who is an otherwise sensible man:
“After meeting Hollande, Sarkozy, with an eye on returning to the Elysée in 2017, called for a tilt (‘une inflexion’) in French foreign policy towards Syria and Russia in order to smash Isis, even though Assad has caused around 95 per cent of civilian deaths in the civil war. Putin has run rings round occidental policy-makers in Syria, but a bilateral French tilt to Damascus is never going to fly, not least because French foreign policy needs to keep on the right side of the US and Turkey.”
The obvious reply is that Daech has been responsible for 100 percent of French casualties. Which of course might be of concern to the president of France. But the idea that Assad’s forces, in a civil war involving multiple paramilitaries, including an outfit of Al Qaeda and Daech, are responsible for 95 percent of civilian deaths, should be subjected to a smell test. Because it seems incompatible with everything we know about the war.
Now, the first thing that is of importance is the link that Newby uses to support his figures. It is to a supposedly “non-partisan” outfit, the SNHR, led by a man named Fahdi Abdul Ghani. How non-partisan is Ghani? Well, in 2013, he was calling for the US to bomb Assad. This seems like less than non-partisan behavior. He also seemed less than worried about the civilian casualties that would result from bombing Damascus.
In fact, the SNHR regularly sends out notices that are, let us say, a bit fantastic. For instance, they have noted that 65 some churches have been attacked in Syria, attributing 64 of those attacks to the regime, and one to al Nusra. So we are meant to believe that the secularist regime of Assad, whose supporters are alawi and christians, went on a church attack rampage, while the paramilitary jihadists ignored the churches entirely in the spirit of ecumenism. Counter evidence is easy to find. Apparently, for instance, the Christians of Idlib have no idea that Assad is a big enemy of Christianity – in fact, some are “praying” for Assad to liberate them from al-Nusra. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/culture/2015/04/syria-idlib-christians-jabhat-alnusra-.html. In Tel Nasri, Daech blew up the Assyrian Church. http://www.albawaba.com/news/daesh-bombs-assyrian-church-northeastern-syria-678594. I could casualy google and find other instances, but I won’t. The point is that announcements like this one about who is damaging churches are evidently conceived in the spirit of propaganda.
However, the main reason one has to question the figure that 95 percent of the civilian casualties in Syria are caused by Assad’s forces is to look at the casualty rate that the Syrian groups, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, attribute to Assad’s forces. The estimated figure, in spring of this year, was 78, 186. If the SNHR are to be believed, in a war that is basically an insurgency, in fighting that is taking place in various towns and cities, these soldiers are struck down with barely any collateral civilian casualties, whereas every battle in which Assad’s soldiers are involved creates vast collateral casualties. If the figure of 39,848 casualties on the rebel side, which is claimed by the Observatory, is true, and only 5 percent of the civilian casualties can be blamed on the rebels, that would mean that of the 104,629 civilian casualties, 99397 can be attributed to the side which has taken twice the casualties. If this is true, it would make Syria a remarkable exception to what we know about civil war, or war in general.
I think it isn’t true.
Assad is a secular tyrant who is up to his neck in blood. But undoubtedly, the most basic civil liberties of different ethnic and religious groups, and women, are better secured by Assad than by any plausible successor among the Saudi led rebel groups. It is for this reason that Kurdish groups in the North have made their peace with Assad and have rolled back Daech – the only regional militias to do so. Newby’s endorsement of a fairy tale of numbers is a bad sign, since if the LRB, which prides itself on going outside of the mainstream media narrative, can produce such nonsense, we can only expect worse from the media in the mainstream. Those who continue to maintain a fragile memory capability – memory is the last resistor – will recall the propaganda about Saddam Hussein leading into the first Gulf war. That propaganda was successful in that it too, with Gulf funding, set up “non-partisan” groups to rubberstamp its figures. In a more sceptical atmosphere, the 95 percent figure would be a step too far – but anything is now believed once we have identified this year’s Hitler.