Assad's 'Counter-Extremism' Battle Takes Toll on Civilians


Assad's 'Counter-Extremism' Battle Takes Toll on Civilians

17 Nov 2016

Syria was among the worst countries for civilian deaths due to state actions, according to the Global Extremism Monitor. This extract from the Monitor's quarterly report analyses the data.

This is an extract from the Global Extremism Monitor quarterly. Click here for the full report.

Our data shows that violent religious extremism over the quarter resulted in more than 2,600 civilian deaths globally. Sixty-one per cent of these were in Syria and Iraq, according to our figures. This partly reflects the brutality of groups like ISIS, whose ideology justifies violence against those who disagree with them. It may also point to ISIS' tactic of using human shields, as it did when it lost the northern Syrian city of Manbij in August.

When it comes to the number of civilian fatalities due to state actions, however, data for the Middle East and North Africa was particularly stark. The Monitor found that, for every three extremists killed by state militaries, 1,382 in total, two civilians also lost their lives. According to our data, that added up to at least 904 civilian deaths in the quarter. The total figure is likely to be higher, as this is purely in terms of state responses to extremism, but the ratio is indicative of the scale of the violence.

Given the asymmetric nature of the fight, there is always the risk that counter-extremism operations will harm civilians. Of all the countries in this region, however, Syria was among the worst for civilian deaths due to state actions, with 88 per cent of the global total. Some 49 per cent of people killed by airstrikes in the embattled country between July and September were civilians. Russian and Syrian offensives were involved in 87 per cent of those. This bombardment claims to target extremists like ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. In fact, our data showed that in Syria, over the past three months, more civilians were killed in airstrikes than by extremist suicide bombers. There were five times more civilian deaths from strikes. In contrast, when looking at data for all other countries in the Middle East and North Africa combined, excluding Syria, suicide bombs killed seven times more civilians than strikes over the quarter.

On 22 September, the Syrian government announced a fresh military offensive in rebel-held Aleppo, ending all talk of restoring a US-Russian ceasefire over the city that was agreed only one week earlier. Over 40 airstrikes were conducted against five districts throughout the first night alone. Dozens were reported killed, and hundreds wounded. Nearly a fifth of civilian deaths caused by state actions in Syria occurred in Aleppo during the week after the Russian and Syrian militaries launched an offensive.

Prior to the September bombardment, there were regular civilian fatalities, with spikes when governments appeared to be responding to opposing action, according to our data. In early August, for example, Syrian and Russian aircraft targeted areas of Aleppo after militants, led by the Islamist Jaish al-Fatah alliance, broke through Assad's siege of the city. These strikes resulted in over 200 rebel and 130 civilian fatalities over one weekend. While the Syrian rebellion includes jihadi and Islamist factions, Russian and Syrian government military action is taking its toll on rebels in general, and on civilians.

The US-led anti-ISIS coalition also caused civilian fatalities in Syria, but the numbers were far lower than those caused by Russian and Syrian military action. Over the quarter, the Monitor showed that US-led coalition strikes caused 76 per cent fewer civilian deaths. Our data also reflects the fact that British strikes did not cause any civilian deaths in the quarter. This is due to a combination of factors. The US-led coalition's military equipment enables it to hit precise locations with laser and GPS technology. Meanwhile, the Syrian military uses improvised and unguided barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters or jets, which cause major damage. Russia and Syria carry out more strikes than the US-led coalition, and the former have also targeted more civilian areas. Towards the end of the quarter, Russian or Syrian jets hit two hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo.

By comparison, in Yemen's civil conflict, civilians accounted for 25 per cent of total fatalities over the quarter, our data found. As for state counter-extremist efforts in particular, one civilian was killed for every two extremists killed. These civilian deaths occurred as a result of attacks by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Shia Houthi movement. Overall, violent extremism and state counter-extremism caused a similar number of civilian deaths in Yemen between July and September, the Monitor found.

These figures reflect the complicated nature of a civil war scenario where extremist groups are among rebel ranks, and where the regime is prepared to use violence against citizens. In Syria, non-extremist and extremist opposition groups have been fighting together in coalition against the regime. Further, aside from the risk of loss of life and displacement, extremist groups can use state violence to attract recruits, positioning themselves as forces for the good by comparison.

See the Data

Browse the Global Extremism Monitor findings on our interactive data map