The latest battle-deaths data, for 2012, have arrived from the researchers in Uppsala, Sweden, and the news is bad. With the civil war in Syria killing tens of thousands last year, the world total battle deaths jumped up about 70%, reversing the downward trend of recent decades, though not reverting to the high fatality levels of the Cold War years.
The big picture here is a long-term decline of armed conflict worldwide from the World Wars (a hundred times worse than today) to the Cold War proxy battlefields (several-fold worse than the post-Cold War era) to the most recent decade of fewer and smaller civil wars and generally no interstate wars. The Syria spike in 2012 marked the highest battle fatalities since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war ended in 2000. Since then, war deaths had been bouncing along at historically low levels, with some ups and downs. Other than the one-sided clashes of the U.S. coalition with Iraq in 2003 (several weeks) and of Russia with Georgia in 2008 (five days), the world has not had an interstate war since the early months of this century. Maintaining the taboo on interstate war is a prime imperative as the crises in Syria, and elsewhere, threaten to get worse.
There was a similar spike in battle deaths in 2009 when the bloody, brutal end of the Tamil Tigers insurgency in Sri Lanka pushed up the worldwide total. But that spike was smaller than the 2012 one, and lasted only two years before dropping down again. Syria might (or might not) go on for a lot longer than two years.
It is important to understand that the “battle deaths” measure is a partial estimate of total war deaths. Although it includes both military and civilian deaths, only those from violence are counted—be it a gun battle, air strike, or suicide bombing—and only those that occur in the context of a battle, where two sides are attacking each other. So, for example, a government massacre of peaceful protesters would not be included, nor would the many people who disappear and whose bodies show up dumped in the street (or never show up). Disease and starvation among refugees also are not counted, and only verified deaths are included.
The Syria battle-death total for 2012 was about 15,000—clearly just a subtotal of the war’s cost, but a useful subtotal for tracking change through time. That 15,000 was up from 1,000 in 2011, and was almost double the annual battle deaths in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009. It was higher, per year, than either Iraq or Afghanistan at their worst (of course, they lasted for years and we have yet to see about Syria). It is possible the Syria number reflects in part a greater effort by several parties to document deaths in the war, compared with other armed conflicts around the world. But in my view this effect does not explain most of the striking rise in deaths.
Other than Syria, 2012 showed few changes from 2011. Battle deaths in Afghanistan remained around 7,000; those in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan each fell between 1,000 and 3,000; and those in Iraq were below 1,000. Other low-level armed conflicts sputtered along in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Burma/Myanmar, D.R. Congo, southern Russia, South Sudan and Pakistan (in decreasing order of battle deaths, all between 300 and 1,200). The world total for 2011 was 23,000, and it increased in 2012 to 38,000.
Fundamentally, we don’t know the answer yet to the big question: Is the 2012 spike the start of a sustained reversal of the declining war trend, back to the bad old days of the Cold War? Or is the 2012 spike like the 2009 spike but higher and longer-lasting, namely a temporary jump in war that reverts in a few years to a low world battle deaths level (and perhaps future temporary spikes)?
The most worrisome aspect of the Syria war is its potential to spread geographically and potentially spark much larger armed conflicts. Already low-scale but lethal violence has jumped borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Currently, the Syrian government receives weapons and soldiers from Iran and from the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, a client of Iran’s. Meanwhile the Syrian rebels receive weapons from Qatar, a Sunni emirate right across the Gulf from Shi’ite Iran, and the Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria receive volunteers, weapons, and money from various foreign populations, notably Sunni areas of Iraq. If that weren’t bad enough, the old superpowers, America and Russia, are also lined up on opposite sides. One reason for the high battle deaths of the Cold War era was that outside weapons and money on both sides kept proxy wars going for years. This could all too easily happen in Syria.
Because there are so few good options to improve the situation in Syria, media and public attention tend to drift away from the issue. That is a mistake.
Unfortunately, the international community failed, earlier in the conflict, to use the United Nations effectively as the powerful tool that it could be. Because Americans (public and officials) underestimate the potential of the UN, we do not put enough effort into using that potential. In October 2011, the Syria problem came before the Security Council. I thought the great powers should find what they agree on and pass a resolution to enact it. That would have meant deep compromises to get Russia on board. But it would have brought the Syria problem within the UN where the great powers could exert influence to contain and manage the problem.
Instead, the U.S. administration, in an exception from its generally solid foreign policy record, pushed an anti-Assad resolution that guaranteed a Russian veto. Then we passed a similar resolution in the General Assembly by a huge margin, having absolutely no binding effect but embarrassing Russia when few countries sided with it. The United States thus deftly used the Syria crisis to show how bad Russia is, and demonstrate the moral superiority of America and its allies. U.S. and western officials declared fervently that Assad must go. This may all be true, but it did not help the Syria people one bit. And when China took Russia’s side in the UN, the attempt to isolate Russia more or less failed too.
Now, so many months and so many deaths later, the United States is trying to get on the same page with Russia to work out some kind of solution in Syria. It is vastly harder now. It still needs to be tried.
One point of my work on the decline of war is that the continuation of the recent trend is not inevitable. There is an ever-present potential for a reversal. What happens in the coming years will depend on the choices that people make. We’ve made some bad ones about Syria. But now the job of making the best of a bad situation is vitally important for the entire world, before Syria’s lethal wildfire intensifies and spreads along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and beyond.
[Data source: UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset v.5-2013, Uppsala Conflict Data Program, www.ucdp.uu.se, Uppsala University.]