In Syria’s Civilian Death Toll, The Islamic State Group, Or ISIS, Is A Far Smaller Threat Than Bashar Assad
In the six months since the Islamic State group declared a caliphate across Iraq and Syria, it has become an international enemy and prompted the first U.S. intervention in the conflict since the beginning of the nearly four-year Syrian civil war. But the Sunni jihadi group, also known as ISIS, who have turned into a global synonym for brutality aren’t remotely as deadly, when it comes to the number of people killed, than the country’s own government.
In a civil war that has left more than 200,000 people dead, President Bashar Assad’s regime remains the most dangerous threat to Syrian civilians.
International Business Times compiled the documented death tolls for December 2014 from several Syrian human rights monitoring groups, and in every instance, regime-inflicted civilian deaths dwarfed the number of civilians killed by ISIS. Statistics from Syria are to be taken with caution, since access to the media is limited and reporting on the numbers of casualties is often biased. And in the brutal calculus of a civil war where every faction is guilty of crimes against civilians, those numbers do not indicate that some are more guilty than others, experts say.
“Any generalization you make about Syria will be wrong in the past, wrong now and wrong in the future,” Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.
The Syrian government long ago stopped keeping a body count, the various jihadist groups do not report casualty numbers, and even the United Nations briefly stopped tracking the death toll last year. Documenting the Syrian death totals is only possible at the most local level, from the many voices of independent human rights advocates, field hospital workers and media activists sprinkled around the country, often operating in secret. The story of Syria’s civil war is being told by civilians though these grassroots monitoring organizations.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented at least 1,232 civilian deaths in December, with 1,049 killed by regime forces, or more than 85 percent. ISIS is responsible, by this count, for just over 5 percent of the civilian deaths.
At least 30 activists throughout Syria compile information for the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) weekly report on victims of regime forces. From Nov. 29 to Jan. 2, the organization was able to identify 1,030 civilians killed by the regime by either their name, photo or witness testimony. The group reported 128 civilians killed by ISIS, the highest number reported for this time period.
The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee documented 1,328 civilian deaths for December. Of those cases, the group confirmed 49 killings at the hands of ISIS, most of whom “were executed in the presence of their family members.”
The Assad regime, on the other hand, kills in vast numbers not by staging mass executions on the groundbut through frequent air attacks on civilian-heavy areas of Syria. Throughout the war, the regime has been accused of hundreds of arbitrary airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling, with death tolls ranging from five to 1,000 for a single attack.
“Hundreds of eyewitness testimonies and many pieces of evidence and proof suggest beyond any doubt that more than 90 percent of both widespread and single attacks targeted civilian and residential buildings,” the SNHR report stated. “This goes against the claims of Syrian government that it is fighting ‘al Qaeda and terrorism.’”
Statistics for regime victims also show a significantly higher number of women and children killed, a result of targeting civilian areas. On Dec. 23, regime warplanes reportedly targeted an elementary school in Eastern Ghouta, killing six children and wounding at least 30 others, according to the VDC.Photographic evidence of the attack is too gruesome for IBTimes to display.
A high percentage of the regime’s civilian casualties are victims of torture at one of the regime’s 27 torture centers documented by Human Rights Watch. An average of four people die every day in Syria from torture in government-run prisons, according to data from VCD and Syria Deeply previously compiled by IBTimes. Reports from various monitoring groups put the torture total for December between 88 and 197.
Lower fatality numbers for ISIS are not to be confused with a lesser degree of brutality. ISIS has engaged in mass civilian executions when it attempts to seize new territory. From June to November, ISIS militants killed nearly 1,500 Syrians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Of the 879 civilians among those, the majority were victims of the Sunni Shaitat tribe massacre earlier this year that left roughly 700 people dead. In November, IBTimes reported that militants stoned two men to death for “being gay” in Deir el-Zour.
The difference between ISIS and the regime’s brutality against civilians was tragically represented in the de facto ISIS headquarters of Raqqa one day in November. Regime airplanes carried out at least eight airstrikes on the city in the morning, killing at least 50 civilians. That afternoon, media activists told IBTimes, ISIS militants publicly executed two civilians in the city’s main square. Though they used different methods, and the numbers may be vastly different, the result is the same for Syria’s war-weary people.