Syria 2012 – Modeling Multiple Datasets in an Ongoing Conflict

The struggle between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition forces has generated extensive global press coverage, but few accurate estimates of casualties. In January 2013, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report on the number of conflict-related killings in Syria. The UN report is based on statistical analysis conducted by HRDAG scientists Megan Price, Jeff Klingner and Patrick Ball. This chapter examines HRDAG’s findings which compared information from a database collected by the Syrian government with six databases compiled by Syrian human rights activists and citizen journalists. After examining information about fully identified victims, HRDAG integrated more than 147,000 records of documented deaths and applied data mining techniques to match duplicate records. HRDAG scientists concluded that 59,648 named people were killed in the Syrian conflict between March 2011 and November 2012. The UN released a statement describing the HRDAG report as an exhaustive analysis, but the Syrian government condemned the findings as politically biased.


HRDAG scientists are now using examples of fabricated and inaccurate reports of death in Syria flagged by critics, to build a model of records that should be excluded from analysis. HRDAG is also using MSE to estimate the number of killings that have not been documented. When combined, the results of the two models will reveal the true number of killings and patterns of violence in Syria based on a quantitatively accurate analysis of trends over time and patterns in geographic areas. This information will support transitional justice mechanisms such as victim compensation, truth commissions, vetting of public officials, and criminal prosecutions based on trustworthy evidence.

Our work has been used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations. We have worked with partners on projects on five continents.