The growing death toll in the Syrian conflict has been referred to with deep concern by the United Nations and by government officials, the media and civil society organisations around the world. It can be argued that these continually mounting numbers have become the predominant measure of the conflict’s scale and severity.
Most casualty figures in circulation originate from a small number of Syrian civil society groups which began recording deaths and human rights violations in response to the conflict, and are to varying degrees aligned with the opposition movement in Syria. Instead of simply issuing statistics, these groups publish detailed lists of each individual killed, in most cases including their name and the circumstances of their death, with the category of weapon that caused it.
These very specific details, and their open publication, lend the casualty recording projects a degree of credibility.[i] This is because they provide the basis and a starting point from which the deaths they report can be investigated, and verified – if not immediately, then post-conflict. Many of the higher-profile events these details describe are of course already corroborated by other sources, including the world’s media. Nonetheless, simple totals throughout this study and elsewhere should be treated with caution and be considered provisional: briefly put, it is too soon (and outside the scope of this study) to say whether they are too high or too low.
What the details contained in these databases also provide is clearer insight into the vulnerabilities of the civilian population exposed to conflict in Syria.
Earlier studies[ii] combined multiple databases to obtain more comprehensive figures for the conflict’s civilian and combatant death toll than are found in any single database. Taking a similar approach, the present study uses information on demographics and causes of death recorded in four casualty databases to shed light on the lethal effects of the conflict on one particular civilian group: children.[iii]
Our findings are accompanied by an examination of the Syrian casualty recording organisations that produced the databases, all of which agreed to be interviewed for this study on questions relating to data quality. We also describe the methods, scope and limitations of the present study.
Based on the data on children published in these four databases, our principal findings are that:
- By the end of August 2013, 11,420 children aged 17 years and younger had been recorded killed in the Syrian conflict, out of a total of 113,735 civilians and combatants killed.
- Of the children killed, boys outnumbered girls by more than 2 to 1 overall, with the ratio of boys to girls close to 1:1 among infants and children under 8 but rising to more than 4 boys to every girl among 13- to 17-year-olds.
- The highest number of child deaths occurred in the governorate of Aleppo, where 2,223 were reported killed. When measured against its population size (about one-fifth of Aleppo’s), the deadliest governorate for children was Daraa, where 1,134, or roughly 1 in 400, children were reported killed.
- By far the primary cause of death reported for children was explosive weapons, killing 7,557 (71%) of the 10,586 children whose specific cause of death was recorded.
- Air bombardment was given as the cause of death for 2,008 of the children reported killed by explosive weapons.
- Small-arms fire was reported as the cause of death for 2,806 (26.5%) of the 10,586 children for whom cause of death was recorded, including 764 cases of summary execution and 389 cases of sniper fire with clear evidence of children being specifically targeted.
- The four databases between them reported 128 children killed in the chemical attacks in Ghouta on 21 August 2013.
- At least 112 cases of children tortured and killed were reported, including some of infant age.
We conclude that the conflict in Syria has had (and as of the time of writing, continues to have) a large-scale lethal impact on the country’s children.
In the absence of other sources of information, the extent and nature of this impact on children (and on Syrians generally) is known only thanks to the efforts of a handful of Syrian civil society groups that record the conflict’s casualties on a daily basis.
Our recommendation to all parties concerned with the victims of the Syrian conflict is that such information gathering efforts should be joined and supported, including by States. The chemical attacks in Ghouta are already under investigation by the international community; the many other ways in which civilians, including children, have been killed throughout this conflict warrants similarly serious investigation.
Our specific recommendations for States and conflict parties, in brief, are that:
- All armed forces and groups operating in the Syrian conflict must refrain from targeting civilians, including children.
- All armed forces and groups should receive training in how to avoid putting civilians and children at risk.
- All armed forces and groups should be trained in, and carry out, the recording of casualties, including those that they cause, and make these records public.
- Persons and organisations contributing to casualty recording (including journalists) should not be hindered from going about their work by any armed forces or groups.
As the highest priority for children, in our view, is to remove them from all the inherent dangers of war, we end this report with an overview of options other than military intervention for bringing the Syrian conflict to an end.
[i] The term “casualty” throughout this report is used to refer to persons directly killed in violence. The injured are outside our scope, but deaths can also be taken as an indicator of the presence of victims of wounding: see section below on explosive weapons.
[ii] Updated Statistical Analysis of Documentation of Killings in the Syrian Arab Republic. Commission by OHCHR. Megan Price, Jeff Klingner, Anas Qtiesh and Patrick Ball. HRDAG. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/SY/HRDAG-Updated-SY-report.pdf
[iii] Defined in this report as anyone aged 17 and below.