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New UN report counts 191,369 Syrian-war deaths — but the truth is probably much, much worse

ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 13. Syrians gather at the site of a reported barrel-bomb attack by government forces
ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 13. Syrians gather at the site of a reported barrel-bomb attack by government forces
Zein Al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images

A new UN report says that at least 191,369 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict so far. That number is astounding: it is the equivalent of the entire population of Salt Lake City being wiped out, or Tallahassee. However, the true number of casualties is almost certainly much higher.

Patrick Ball, Executive Director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and one of the report's authors, explained to me that this new report is not a statistical estimate of the number of people killed in the conflict so far. Rather, it's an actual list of specific victims who have been identified by name, date, and location of death. (The report only tracked violent killings, not "excess mortality" deaths from from disease or hunger that the conflict is causing indirectly.)

To be included in the report, a death had to be identified and documented by one of the five organizations gathering data on the ground in Syria: the Syrian Center for Statistics and Research, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Violations Documentation Centre, the Syrian government, or the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The report does not extrapolate from that data to determine an overall estimate of deaths from the conflict. That means that it is almost certainly an undercount, and the true death toll could be thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands higher. But we do not yet know how many of Syria's dead did not make it onto any of the lists — or why they are missing.

That matters, Ball pointed out, because if some deaths are recorded and others are not, that may be because something makes those missing deaths different from the ones that can be seen. We don't yet know, he said, "why some deaths are visible, and others invisible." Indeed, sometimes extreme violence can actually prevent killings from showing up in data like this, because the area where they occurred was too dangerous for human rights groups to visit and document what happened. That could result in major undercounting.

So, not only is it impossible to tell from the current data how many deaths there may have been in total, we also don't know if the current list is representative in terms of what kinds of people were killed, where, and under what circumstances. HRDAG is working on a statistical analysis that will attempt to shed some light on the deaths that are not showing up in the lists, as well as those that are. Until then, however, the 191,369 number from today's report is a minimum. It can only tell us what we do know — not what we don't.

And it matters what we don't know. It matters because the people of Syria who are losing their lives to brutal violence deserve to have someone bear witness to their deaths. But it also matters because data can tell a story about a conflict, about whether genocide or ethnic cleansing or other war crimes are occurring, and help to hold the perpetrators of those acts responsible.

That story has yet to be told about Syria.