Saturday, April 18, 2015

Syria Body Count

Are casualties in Syria high enough to be a factor in whether either side can keep fighting? I assume Assad's forces are more vulnerable to collapse, but am I right to think that is true?

Over 220,000 have died in the Syrian civil war, so far:

"We have counted 222,271 deaths since the start of the revolt in March 2011," the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

That underestimates the intensity because fighting really didn't get going until about three years ago.

They specify 67,000 dead civilians; 44,000 Assad regime forces; 700 Hezbollah; 2,300 other foreign fighters (of the Iran-organized Shia foreign legion); almost 40,000 rebels (I assume locals, of all varieties); and 28,000 foreign rebel jihadis.

This adds up to 182,000. Who are the other 40,000? Or are they simply unsure whether those dead are combatants or civilians? I assume that must be the case.

I assume that the real uncertainty must be whether military-age male casualties are rebel or civilians.

They don't count 20,000 missing. They also assume the death count is higher than what they've counted.

So what kind of burden do these numbers represent?

Assad can draw on a quarter of Syria's population for recruits--say 6 million. So they've lost 0.73% of their population.

The rebels have a pool of the rest--say 17 million. So they've lost 0.23% of their population. This is probably higher if you assume 40% of the uncategorized dead are actually rebels. Say a burden of 0.33%.

Hezbollah can draw on 1.6 million Shia Lebanese. So they've lost 0.44% of their population.

There are 1.6 billion Moslems globally (with maybe 10% Shia), so the foreign fighters have an effectively limitless pool for recruits limited only by individual calculations of glory or anonymous death as their destiny.

I suppose I could estimate the effective pool, but what percent of the global population of either Sunnis or Shias is jihad-friendly enough to count as the recruiting pool base? One percent? Ten percent? A third? The range is just too broad for me to even pretend that this can be calculated.

We broke them in Iraq by the end of 2007, but we broke them on the battlefield during the surge offensive and not by attrition.

By way of comparison, in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, America lost 0.0015% of our population (which is over more years), a level that threatened to break our will to fight.

Hezbollah's stomach for dying abroad is understandably weak by this point. Especially since they've killed no Israelis in this war.

Absent a battlefield victory or a loss of support by one side or the other that makes their cause look hopeless, Assad's forces are far more vulnerable to collapse from a war of attrition, it would seem.

By way of comparison, in 8 years of war, Iraq and Iran lost, respectively, 100,000 and 200,000 dead (the low end of the estimates, which I tend to assume even though it is common to say a million died on both sides--although if you assume 3 wounded per dead, you do get close to a million casualties).

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 might be a better point of comparison.

Iraq's 1988 population was about 17 million while Iran's was about 53 million. So Iraq suffered casualties representing 0.59% of their population. Iran suffered losses at 0.38% of their population.

While Iraq was routinely portrayed as on the verge of collapsing due to poor morale and casualties, Iran's forces broke first, despite being the side with the jihadi mentality that valued life less than the "secular" Iraqis (mostly Moslems, but without the high levels of religious war motivation).

Mind you, this was an inter-state war and not a civil war, so the Iranians--after 1982--also had the burden of carrying on in an offensive war while Iraqis were defending their border from attack.

(And note that Iraq's army did break in 1982 when their total casualties were still relatively low while trying to hold their Iranian conquests, but they recovered to hold the border.)

In the Syrian civil war, only the Shia foreign legion and Hezbollah can give up and go home. It makes sense that Hezbollah is getting shaky, since they've endured proportional casualties higher than Iran in 1980-1988.

And recently it seems as if Iran is worried about the steadiness of the Shia foreign legion.

For the locals in Syria, you either win or you lose and risk the tender mercies of the winners.

For Iraq from 1982 to 1988, that was their choice, and they successfully endured losses representing 0.59% of their population.

In the Syrian civil war, Assad's forces have lost above that burden measurement (0.73%) while the rebels have a lower burden using that metric (0.33% at the higher, more likely end). Does this mean Assad's forces should be on Collapse Watch as I think?

Although I've asked how much Assad's forces can endure, as long as they receive foreign support to give them the means to fight, they may be able to continue on even though the evidence of their shakiness is growing.

I don't know what the real red zone is for overloading a ground force's willingness to endure. I just know that it isn't a maximum of 0.59%, which Iraq endured by 1988.

And while the rebels seem to be on more solid ground morale-wise, I think that relies on them getting weapons and not feeling abandoned. Are we doing that? If not, the rebels could lose heart despite their relatively lower casualty burden.

Nor do I know whether the civilian dead should be factored in. I'm assuming just the combatants and their willingness to fight is key.

I know I promised there's be no math here. I just don't know what the math means at this point.

I do think it clearly could mean something.

UPDATE: Strategypage has a good related post.