Counting the Human Cost of the Syrian Conflict.

August 28, 2014 • Asia, In Depth, Middle East, Syria, World

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In the first of our 4 part in-depth special on Syria we look at the human cost of the Syrian conflict. 3 and half years of brutal civil war; 191,000 dead, 2.9 million refugees and no end in sight.


Syria. A country ravaged by vicious civil war for 3 and a half years has now had almost 200,000 people die in the conflict. The UN has recently released a report stating that 191,000 people have been killed since the fighting began in 2011 – an increase of 50,000 from only 6 months ago.

Human cost of conflict means identifying the present and future price of violence. Measuring the cost occurs in numerical terms by necessity. But how do you measure the effects of 3 years of conflict on millions of displaced people living as refugees, with little access to education, sanitation, stability or security.

Perhaps the best way of counting the human cost of the Syrian conflict is by conflating present Syrian data with studies from similar situations: countries that have suffered through civil war such as South Sudan. Though straightforward comparison isn’t applicable due to differing circumstances, parallels can be drawn and projections can be made that are at the very least indicative. Syria is in somewhat of a unique situation – it has for a long time been relatively stable, though repressive, and has had very good government-funded health and education systems. Neither has there been the damning poverty that has been part of the tinderbox prior to conflict in other countries – this conflict is strictly about political tensions along sectarian lines.


To understand the human cost, you need to look at the empirical data first. Fiscally, the 3 and a half year conflict has been incredibly expensive, the economic damage totalling US$143 billion by late 2013, no small number for a country whose 2010 GDP was US$60 billion.  Industry has almost completely ground to a half; Western companies have been banned from working in Syria, notably oil companies such as Shell and Total. Sanctions have been placed on Syria from most of the Western world as well as the Arab League. In fact economic conditions are so dire that the UN estimates that it will take at least 30 years till the economy gets back to pre-war levels.


60% of Syria’s 88 public hospitals have been either destroyed or damaged beyond function. Half the country’s doctors have fled. At no time has the demand for healthcare been higher in Syria, injuries from the conflict and illnesses from poor living conditions have heavily burdened the system. Those with chronic illness either have no access to medicine or find it prohibitively expensive. Polio has re-emerged with 36 children affected and paralysed and the disease has spread to Iraq. Polio, in this case, is especially worrying, as the highly contagious disease primarily affects children younger than 5. 3 million children so far have been displaced by the conflict.


The toll on education has been stark. Almost 4000 schools have been destroyed and half of Syrian students are no longer gaining an education. The education situation has deteriorated most where the violence has been worst: Idlib has lost a quarter of its schools, and Aleppo a sixth, whilst in both regions school attendance has dropped below 30%.
Whilst children have found some safety in refugee camps, education is still difficult to come by. Two thirds of Syrian refugees are school-children, leaving at least 500,000 children out of education, though the number could be much higher. Looking at the Bosnian war, a 15 year old would have, on average, had 11 years of education prior to the conflict, by 2006 a 15 year old had, on average, only 7 years of education. This translates into very real long term consequences – Bosnia is troubled by a working age population with skillsets that mismatch what the economy requires, resulting in high levels of unemployment.

Psychological Effects

This conflict will leave a whole generation mentally scarred. The consequences of conflict are not isolated to simply deaths; they are simply the tip of the iceberg. Studies on Afghanistan have shown that symptoms of depression were found in 67.7% of respondents, symptoms of anxiety in 72.2%, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 42%. The same study shows a study of Kosovo Albanians which illustrates 90% of adults expressed strong feelings of hatred towards the Serbs, with 44% of men and 33% of women stating that they would act on these feelings. Psychological conditions of these kinds occur anywhere conflict is found and it is inevitable that these conditions will be present in the Syrian situation. At present UNICEF predicts 2 million children will be in need of psychological support.

By its very nature civil war is the worst form of conflict. Destroying a country from the inside, it pits people against each other, people who would under normal circumstances be friends, neighbours and colleagues. When a combatant is killed it weakens the nation as a whole. Money used in financing the war effort largely comes from that very country.

Countries that have gone through the horrors of civil war have consistently lagged behind in a myriad of indices; education, health and economy. Even a superficial analysis of indices shows a strong correlation between civil war and low development levels.  South Sudan has a 27% literacy rate and comes 153 out of 185 countries in terms of GDP per capita. This situation is certainly not unique, and the majority of nations at the bottom of these lists have suffered significant and long term violence: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, the DRC, Burundi, Liberia etc.

As outsiders pile into the Syrian equation an end to the conflict looks increasingly more distant. The future of Syria remains bleak.


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