What is the Syrian death toll now? 400,000? Less? More? While the aphorism “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic”, has been attributed to many, it is likely none foresaw the inverse utility of this concept for shaping narratives in an age of humanitarian intervention. Statistics are now weapons in themselves. Raw numbers are ambiguous; as journalist Sharmine Narwani writes, “It doesn’t tell us who is killing and who is dying. And that information matters – the global political response to a genuine civil conflict would be different than to a genocide committed by a ruthless authority.”
When the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released its eighth summary of the Syrian death toll in mid-2015 it painted this confused picture: 230,000 total deaths, between 150,000 and 160,000 ‘opposition deaths’ (civilian and military), a further 98,000 ‘other’ civilian deaths, and a very precise 18,476 ‘regime’ deaths – an actual minimum total of 266,476.