March was the deadliest month so far in Syria’s two-year-old civil war, as rebels pressed their offensive throughout the country, seizing a provincial capital for the first time and launching attacks on other fronts.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 5,896 civilians and combatants died last month, surpassing the 5,400 deaths the observatory recorded in August, the previous high-water mark. The observatory logged 3,893 deaths in February.
Death tolls reported for Syria’s conflict are thought to be largely incomplete. A U.N.-funded study that attempted to collate death reports from a variety of sources concluded in January that at least 60,000 people had died in the conflict by then, at a time that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had recorded 46,000 dead.
The observatory, which reports deaths as civilian, rebel, government soldiers and unknown, is considered to keep the most authoritative running tally. Examining its reports on a monthly basis provides a clearer picture of the war’s trends than daily news accounts of the horrific violence do.
March’s numbers reveal the extent to which better-equipped rebels on the offensive have changed the war’s complexion. While virtually the same number of civilians died in March as in February – 1,780 versus 1,770 – rebel and government forces suffered far greater casualties. Rebel deaths totaled 1,720 in March, compared with 1,128 in February, a 52 percent increase, while Syrian government forces lost 1,281 in March, a 29 percent increase over the 994 reported in February.
That dramatically changed the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths. In March, civilians accounted for 30 percent of the dead; in February they were 45 percent.
“Rebel actions now frequently involve multiple units, and many rebel units are heavily armed,” said Jeff White, a defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center in the U.S. capital.
White said he thought that new weapons, particularly Croatian arms purchased by Saudi Arabia and shipped to the rebels with American approval, were responsible for the apparent increase in combat deaths.
The most dramatic sign of that increase was rebel deaths, a likely reflection of the new aggressiveness with which they assaulted government positions in Syria’s north and east.
The rebels, led by the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, seized the capital of Raqqa province in March and surrounded other government positions in the province. Rebels also overtook government positions in Deraa province in Syria’s south, near the border with Jordan.
It wasn’t possible to determine from the observatory’s statistics how many rebels had died in Raqqa or Deraa during March. But the massing of rebels probably made them easier targets for Syrian aircraft, which remain the government’s key advantage over the rebels.
White said the number of airstrikes reported by anti-regime activists had remained flat last month, with an average of 21 sorties daily.
He said the rebel gains also might have been helped by a reduction of government troops in those areas.
The change in the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths also may reflect the dynamics of a population that’s increasingly on the move. Millions of people have become refugees within Syria, and aid agencies warn that the numbers will only increase.
Raqqa city, for example, is the largest city under rebel control. The population of the city, once home to 250,000 people, had soared to as many as 750,000 as people fled to it from other parts of Syria. Then, as the rebels approached, most of those people fled. They still haven’t returned, and Raqqa’s population now is estimated at about 100,000.
Many think that the scale of the killing in Syria is wider than reported. The U.N. now says it thinks that the total number of dead has surpassed 70,000, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has recorded more than 60,000 deaths since the uprising began in March 2011.
On its Facebook page, the observatory cautions that its figures don’t include “thousands of forcibly disappeared persons in the regime’s detention centers” or “the hundreds of kidnapped members of the regular forces and others taken captive by rebels.”
The group said it had been difficult to document suspected government sympathizers killed by rebels as well as casualties among pro-regime militias, which it estimates may number as many as 12,000 people.
The Syrian government doesn’t release casualty figures for the military, and paramilitary organizations are playing a wider part in the war now than they did at its outset.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has begun documenting the deaths of non-Syrian fighters who’ve joined the rebels’ ranks, tallying 25 deaths of fighters from other Arab or Muslim countries among the 1,720 dead rebels in March, about 1.5 percent.