The Human Cost of War in the Middle East: A Graphic Overview

War is always a tragedy in human terms, but the four wars in the Middle East have raised the level of that tragedy to truly massive proportions. These costs are summarized in detail in a new analysis by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled The Human Cost of War in the Middle East: A Graphic Overview.

This analysis is available on the CSIS web site at

It draws on the work of a variety of UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF, NGOs, media sources, work by other research centers, the CIA, and estimates of the trends in terrorism by START and Vision of Humanity. It provides both comparisons of the overall trends involved, and a country-by-country analysis of these impacts.

Coverage of the Report

The report examines the direct humanitarian impacts of the war summarized shown in Figure One, but the coverage goes much further. It examines the longer term impacts on the quality of governance, the economy, and the geographic areas where the war has its maximum impact. It also compares casualty estimates, key areas affected by the fighting, and other impacts of conflict as well as illustrates the difference in reporting by country, and major problems in the data now available.

Key sections of the report examine:

  • Key Analytic and Policy Challenges
  • The Broader Refugee, IDP, and Humanitarian Impact of Insurgency and Civil War
  • Interactions with the Cumulative Human Impact of Terrorism
  • Conflict Impacts in Libya
  • Conflict Impacts in Syria
  • Conflict Impacts in Iraq, and
  • Conflict Impacts in Yemen

Key Issues in Analysis

The graphics, tables, trend analyses and narratives in these sections summarize data from different sources, and they illustrate serious problems in the data available in the process.

One set of problems grows out of the very different levels of data available on what are different wars occurring in states with very different levels of development, internal stability, and access. These issues are compounded by the fact many sources do not address uncertainty, disclose the lack of coverage of key areas and issues, and the date of data collection.

It is clear that in spite of the steadily improving work by the UN’s United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there is no standardized approach for reporting on even the short-term humanitarian impacts of the four wars involved.

These issues, however, are only two of the 12 most serious problems affecting the data available. The key limits in the present data and analysis include:

  1. No meaningful effort to standardize international data and assess uncertainty. Lack of standardized reporting and comparable data on different crisis and problem areas by country and key source of tension and conflict.
  2. Compartmentation of analysis and data into country-wide subsets for terrorism, combat, governance, politics, and economics.
  3. Lack of reliable casualty data and politicization of much of available data. There is a tendency to focus on given sources of casualties like those from air power rather than the overall costs, ignore the longer term issue of serious injuries, and impact of loss of medical services.
  4. Uncertainties and lack of collection access in data on refugees, IDPs, humanitarian needs, and costs.
  5. Serious gaps and uncertainties in terms of estimates of impact of inadequate food supplies and poor nutrition.
  6. Lack of standardized and comparable reporting and sources.
  7. Poor accountability for many causes of suffering and again, the politicization of much of the available data.
  8. Inability to separate impact of poor governance and economic development from impacts of fighting in some cases.
  9. Unreliable and non-comparable economic data, often badly lagging the crisis.
  10. Uncertain ratings of impact on governance and corruption, again often badly lagging the crisis.
  11. Limited data on impact of regional, ethnic, sectarian, and tribal problems and tensions.
  12. Lack of credible data on options for recovery, time involved, and cost.

Longer-Term Impacts

Far more serious problems lie, however, in the tendency to focus on immediate needs at the expense of longer term problems and needs, and on the interactions between the human costs of war, and the broader problems in what were already close to failed states in many ways.

The key policy problems in the data and analyses available on the human costs of war include the ways in which years of conflict interact with the broader problems in each country. These include the cumulative impact of:

  • Massive population growth (some 6 times since 1950), hyperurbanization, lack of agricultural modernization and reform, and economic diversification.
  • Extremely young populations and “youth bulges” creating job and career crisis, lack of housing, education, and services, inability to marry and support a family
  • Decades of poor governance, security based on authoritarianism, acute corruption, crony capitalism, and steadily deteriorating equity in income distribution.
  • Security based on authoritarianism and repression rather than dealing with causes of extremism and conflict.
  • Acute ethnic, sectarian, tribal, regional and other sources of internal tensions and conflict.
  • The sustained lack of effective and credible economic development efforts documented by Arab Development Reports since 2002, and in decades of World Bank and IMF reporting.
  • The post-conflict impact of major losses of housing, jobs, businesses, education; impact of refugee and internally displaced persons; and impact of wartime destruction of civilian facilities and institutions.
  • The ongoing struggle for the future of Islam involving both extremism and Sunni vs. Shi’ite and other Islamic minorities that will endure regardless of what happens to ISIS and Al Qaida.
  • A civilian policy level and aid focus on near-term humanitarian needs rather than planning to build stability, support recovery and return, address the underlying issues of conflict, and create governance and development incentives for post-conflict unity.
  • A military focus on short term tactical victories at the expense of adequate recovery and development efforts. The focus is on “win,” with little effort to develop real world “hold” or “build” capability and conduct effective stability operations.

This lack of clear planning for post-conflict stability and recovery raises critical questions about the value of military efforts that do not address the key causes of conflict, provide effective plans and recovery efforts, and deal with the broader ideological, sectarian, and other divisions that can trigger new conflicts. It also raises serious questions about the value of humanitarian efforts that deal only with immediate needs but do not offer clear hope for the future.


Figure One: Immediate Humanitarian Impact of Conflict and Crisis in the Middle East, North Africa, and Nearby Regions




Adapted from OCHA, .

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy