Dangerous Baggage

Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri

Syria: Sticking to the Stats

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Current Situation

(Figures correct on Thu 3 Dec 2015)


IMG_0053These are the locations of all air strikes since August 2014 in Iraq and Syria. Over 8000 air strikes, mostly by the US. Current estimates are that 23,000 ISIL fighters have been killed in these air strikes. These figures do not include any ground combat.

Civilian deaths

  • Between 682 and 977 civilians have been killed in 115 incidents
  • Between 703 and 804 claimed deaths in incidents that are either weakly reported, single sourced or the claims about who carried out the air strike is contested.

(Data taken from http://airwars.org/)

These figures are sobering and don’t alone provide sufficient information to justify nor condemn the air strikes, for that a great deal more detail is required. There are however conclusions we may draw at this point

  1. The civilian casualties are too high. The minimum estimate is currently 682 in 16 months. To posit that figure would be morally acceptable over the next 16 months simply isn’t viable. Any air attack that causes civilian casualties is a failure.
  2. Anyone that says “we’ve been bombing them for a long time now and it hasn’t defeated them, it isn’t working and isn’t going to work” (I’ve heard these sentiments countless times, almost always by someone who has done little research and cites no sources). It’s absurd and a denial of the facts to suit a particular ideal. Let’s assume 23,000 is a vast overestimate, let’s assume the real figure is half that. Removing 11,500 soldiers from any army is significant. Anyone that is currently against the bombing has got to answer the question, what do you imagine ISIL would be doing now if they had an extra 11,500 (or 23,000) soldiers in their army? ISIL would be much stronger now if the air strikes did not start when they did? Anyone that claims air strikes have no effect is making claiming that those thousands of armed militants would have made no difference to their strength. Please, for the sake of intelligent debate at least admit that the air strikes thus far have weakened them. Denial of this prevents the debate going any further.


To understand these statistics in some context we must look at the involvement of the allied forces over the last 16 months. There is no alternative but to quote the statement of context from Airways in full:

“After the swift capture of much of Iraq by Islamic State, the US began military actions at the invitation of the Iraqi government on August 8th 2014, focused mainly on airstrikes. It was later joined in its Iraq campaign by

  • France (from September 19th);
  • the UK (September 30th);
  • Belgium (October 5th);
  • the Netherlands (October 7th);
  • Australia (October 8th);
  • Denmark (October 16th);
  • Canada (November 2nd) and
  • Jordan (unspecified date.)

The US began Syrian operations against ISIL on September 23rd 2014, initially aided by

  • Saudi Arabia;
  • Jordan;
  • the United Arab Emirates;
  • Bahrain and
  • Qatar.

These actions did not have the consent of the Assad government – and most other Western nations have not engaged militarily. US targets in Syria have also included a faction of the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, labelled the ‘Khorasan Group.’ On April 8th 2015, Canada also began airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, followed on August 26th by Turkey, by Australia on September 15th and by France on September 27th.

The coalition’s war against ISIL has inevitably caused civilian casualties, certainly far more than the six deaths Centcom presently admits to. Yet it’s also clear that in this same period, many more civilians have been killed by Syrian and Iraqi government forces, by so-called Islamic State and by various rebel and militia groups operating on both sides of the border.”

Further Historical Context

An eloquent, well researched, well produced and reasonably objective documentary on the history of the middle east throughout the 20th century has been put together by Adam Curtis. His Bitter Lake throughly explains the history of various political developments in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. At over 2 hours long this investigation documents the exportation of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia right back to the 1920s and follows the story through to the present day. The trouble with this is that however in depth and historically accurate this documentary is, it is necessarily rather summary. The history of the geographical region that stretches from West Libya to East Afghanistan over the past century is not a history that can be condensed into 2 hours without omissions and summaries. If you haven’t seen this documentary you should probably reserve comment until you have. If you have seen this documentary however, you should probably be open to changing your mind if you are going to read more. It doesn’t, nay could not, tell you everything.

Any history of the Middle East in the 20th century that offers no detail of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Murkhabrat nor even the Iraq and Syrian Ba’ath parties must be considered incomplete. These are not simply details.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine was also touched on in the documentary, as was the changing political nature of Iran over the decades. However the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah were barely mentioned, again these are not minor players in the region.

This is not a review nor critique of Bitter Lake, quite the opposite, it gives an excellent grounding in the subject and even those well versed in this subject will likely learn something, I certainly did. However, please think of this as a foundation, a timeline, a framework on which to hang future knowledge and understanding.

If there is one point I would make about Bitter Lake and this is a point admitted in the beginning of the film. It is a story of the Middle East told through the prism of our intervention in Afghanistan. It necessarily expands into other areas to give a fuller picture but if we are to draw from this film the conclusion that air strikes in Syria are a mistake (a conclusions that seems implicit at the end of the film) then we have to ask how appropriate a comparison of the situation in Afghanistan is to Syria. This is a comparison the film draws without considerable examination and unfortunately the similarities fall down on a number of levels. Learning from the mistakes in Afghanistan is essential, but I wish the film had highlighted some of the key differences between the 2 conflicts before drawing its conclusion.

Qualitative Detail

To arrive at a decision on intervention in Syria on statistics alone would be to avoid some very chilling truths, knowledge that many would prefer to never know. At present the statistics we have are only estimates, and perhaps they always will be, but we also have many stories told by the people living there.

Here is a report with a more qualitative analysis. Before forming a final opinion consider an essential, albeit uncomfortable, read. This UN report has many details, broken down some important subsections:

A. Killing and maiming of children

B. Recruitment and use of children

C. Sexual violence against children

D. Attacks on schools and hospitals and their protected personnel

E. Abduction of children

Do you consider yourself left wing? do you wish to take up that mantle of sitting on the left of the French national assembly? A believer in the enlightenment, and defender of freedom of the people? If you wish to post a hashtag on your Facebook profile to facilitate a clear conscience then by all means do it and carry on with your day. But if you want to attempt to truly act on behalf of the Syrian people then please read this report. Read about the number of dead civilians at the hands of ISIL. Read the individual stories.

“At least 1,297 children (685 girls, 612 boys) were abducted in 322 documented incidents.”

How you feel is a personal choice, please visit Airwars, look at the data for yourself and make your own mind up. Also before you decide please read about this particular group of activists, “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently”  is a campaign operated by activists in Raqqa, they’re under constant threat from Bassad and ISIL forces and put their lives in great danger to report this information, do them the respect of reading their words.

If you just need to make a few comments denouncing war and claiming you’re a peaceful being, then go ahead and get on with your life with a clear conscience. Honestly it’s fine. But know this, unless you have faced all of the uncomfortable facts in this case, then arguing that civilian casualties will result from our bombs is a matter of discomfort for you, and alone does not justify a vote against air strikes. I’m afraid to say that inaction comes with its own civilian body count that may be much, much higher.


Written by matthaughton

December 6, 2015 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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