Attrition: Dealing With Democide In Syria

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December 31, 2017: How many people has ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) killed so far? While we are at it, how many people has the Assad government of Syria killed so far? By the end of 2017 ISIL lost control of the last bits of territory it had controlled in Iraq and Syria since mid-2014. Most of Syria is now back under the control of the Assads, although most of the population is not. In 2011 there were 21 million people living in Syria, now there are about 14 million. Most of the lost population is still alive, but outside Syria (mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan).

At its height ISIL controlled over ten million people. Several other major Islamic terror groups then pledged allegiance to this Islamic State and continue killing. These included Boko Haram and al Shabaab in Africa and many smaller groups in Asia and the Middle East. By 2018 the Islamic state and all its affiliates had killed over 40,000 people directly and many more from secondary effects (starvation, disease and exposure). Most of the deaths attributed to the Islamic State are considered Islamic terrorism but ISIL (and most other Islamic terror groups) insist they are simply enforcing Islamic law, which mandates execution for a wide variety of infractions. This is a contentious subject when it comes to classifying deaths because Islam is a religion where, in its purest form, there is no separation of church and state. “Islam” is a term derived from an Arab word for “submission”. Many religions call for believers to submit to the will of God but Islam is very literal about that and nations that enforce Islamic (Sharia) law execute people for trying to join another religion or saying or doing a long list of things that Islamic law forbids.

Most of the world considers enforcement of this extreme (or “pure”) form of Sharia a form of terrorism and state sponsored murder. This is not a unique problem and that is why it is customary to ignore (or reclassify) legal (government approved or carried out) terrorism. That has always been a problem, but more of a political than a statistical one. The commonly (but not universally) accepted definition of state sponsored terrorism is “bad government”. A fancy term for the mass murder such bad government produces is “democide”. The 20th century was something of a peak period for democide. Soldiers and police killed over 200 million civilians in the 20th century. For every soldier killed in combat, more than two unarmed civilians were slaughtered in what has been, so far, the bloodiest century in human history.

But it gets worse. Three quarters of those dead civilians were killed outside of a combat zone, and most were killed by their own government. That's simply democide. It is still going on in a big way, and not just with the transitory Islamic State. The Syrian civil war saw the Assad government deliberately attack pro-rebel civilians. Since that included most of the Syrian population the immediate goal was not to kill them (although over 100,000 direct deaths were probably the result) but to get the pro-rebel Syrians to flee their homes and, preferably, the country. About a third of the population did just that. Meanwhile North Korea has been killing its own people in large numbers since the 1990s (and in smaller numbers since 1948). That state-sponsored murder has accounted for nearly two million deaths so far. Anything close to the true number won’t be known until the current government is gone and access to the territory and population of North Korea is possible.

While democide is not really a new development, it was never as big as it was in the 20th century. The major offenders have been; USSR (61 million killed), Communist Chinese (38 million), Nazi Germany (20 million), Nationalist Chinese (10 million), Imperial Japan (six million), Cambodian communists (two million), Ottoman Turks (1.8 million), Vietnam (1.6), Polish communists (1.5 million), Pakistan (1.5 million), Yugoslav communists (one million.) There are a number of surprises on this list. Most people think the Nazis were the worst offenders, but they are really only number three. That's because the communists managed to hide their mass murders for most of the century, aided by the tendency of the free world media to believe a lot of the propaganda regarding the "Worker's Paradise". Even before the Cold War ended, there was a growing pile of evidence that something very bad was happening behind the Iron Curtain. During the 1990s, scholars were able to investigate the communist democides more thoroughly because of access to source documents and witnesses and now we know. Some of the smaller offenders on the list are hardly noticed at all, but this is because after World War II most people were sick and tired of war and the massive deaths that accompanied it. But in Eastern Europe, revenge was in the air. While a lot of fascists got killed, so did a lot of innocents. Even being suspected of anti-communist tendencies could get you killed back then.

Democides continue, and now they get a lot more attention. Figuring out how to stop them is another matter. But when the media jumps on a tragic situation like this, they often zap a few innocent bystanders as well. A good example was the news stories in the late 1990s about the killing of South Korean civilians by U.S. soldiers in 1950 near No Gun Ri. This incident, and many similar ones, have long been common knowledge to U.S. soldiers who served during the Korean War or later. It was a not uncommon practice for North Korean troops to wear civilian clothes and mix in with fleeing South Korean refugees in order to get behind US troops. This tactic was learned by the 100,000 North Koreans who had served with the Chinese Communist army during the Chinese civil war, and then transferred to the new North Korean army in the late 1940s. The Chinese Communists openly preached the use of guerilla war tactics during their war (1920s to 1949) with Japanese and Chinese Nationalist forces. As a result, civilians were often fired on if they approached troops who feared (often from past experience) that there were armed enemy soldiers mixed in with the civilians. Americans learned of this tactic the hard way in the Summer of 1950, as they retreated before the advancing North Koreans. A similar tactic was used against UN peacekeepers in Somalia in the early 1990s. In one incident, 24 Pakistanis soldiers were killed because hostile gunmen hid behind women and children. The same tactic was seen by U.S. troops in the 1993 Mogadishu shoot-out that killed 18 American rangers. In that fight, U.S. troops quickly learned to either shoot at the civilians the gunmen were hiding behind, or get shot themselves. Some two million Korean civilians were killed during the 1950-53 Korean War and the deliberate abuse of civilians by non-government groups (especially Islamic terrorists) became a major source of death and destruction early in the 21st century.

The Geneva Conventions do not prohibit the killing of civilians, recognizing that there is often what is termed "military necessity." If this were not the case, every nation involved in World War II would be liable for shelling or bombing civilians. There are cases where civilians are killed for no military reason, and these can be, and sometimes are, prosecuted.

It has long been U.S. Army policy not publicize incidents like No Gun Ri, or things like the high friendly fire rate among American troops (estimated to be as high as 20 percent of friendly casualties in some 20th century battles.) It's bad for morale. The troops don't like dwelling on the fact that in battle their own weapons sometimes kill friendly troops, or innocent civilians. The commander on the spot is in a no-win situation. If he does not order using firepower to keep civilians (and enemy infiltrators) away from your troops, then he has to suffer losses when the enemy infiltrators get behind friendly lines and begin ambushing American troops. This use of civilians, illegal according to the “laws of war” was promoted by political and religious zealots throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Another favorite bad habit of zealots is deliberate terrorizing of civilians. Actually, this is a common characteristic of corrupt countries, where the primary thieves (whether in government or not) use terror to avoid prosecution or united action by very angry citizens. This is another grey area when counting terrorist acts. Even when dealing with leftist or Islamic terrorists there is often overlap between terror attacks done for “the cause” and those concerned mainly with raising cash to keep the terror organization (even bad guys got bills).

 


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