BEIRUT -- Counting casualties of war is often a difficult and politically loaded task. That is certainly the case in Syria's civil strife, but the rising number of military funerals may provide a clue to the toll.
Syrian officials have severely curtailed access to the country for foreign media and human rights investigators. That means accounts of clashes and casualties typically come from opposition activists or the government. Both parties may have reason to inflate or play down casualties.
The most recent United Nations estimate, given almost a month ago, was a death toll of at least 10,000, not including government forces, since the rebellion erupted almost 16 months ago. In recent weeks, however, the fighting has escalated dramatically.
The death toll sometimes exceeds 100 a day, opposition activists say. Some opposition-aligned monitors say the number of dead tops 15,000. No one knows with any certainty.
The Syrian government has accused the opposition of inflating casualties but generally hasn't provided its own figures. Although Syrian authorities likely have a good idea of how many of their own forces have been killed, the government has not updated a figure of about 2,600 dead military and security forces that has been cited publicly since April.
The ranks of the fallen have expanded considerably since then.
One indication is the steady stream of formal military funerals reported daily, at least until recently, on the Syrian state-run news website, SANA.
The number of dead "escorted" from military hospitals is clearly on rise. The average so far in June is almost 22 military and security personnel buried each day -- almost twice the average in May. On June 24, funerals were held for at least 42 soldiers.
The official funeral accounts also provide an indication of where the fighting is fiercest.
On June 23, 43 soldiers were buried along with three policemen, SANA reported. They were killed "while they were in the line of duty" in the Damascus suburbs, and in the provinces of Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and Dara. All are hot spots of the rebellion.
According to opposition activists, the official casualty counts sanitize the reality.
"If SANA is saying 20 [dead], you should multiply the number by at least two," said one opposition advocate.
In its accounts, the state-run media adopt a solemn, nationalistic tone, echoing President Bashar Assad's contention that Syria is the target of a "foreign conspiracy" and "terrorist" attacks.
"The martyrs' families called for firmly confronting the armed terrorist groups that have been committing criminal and sabotage acts in implementation of foreign agendas," is a customary concluding line.
Reports on military funerals sometimes include the names of civilians killed. Whether these are non-uniformed security personnel is not clear. Rebels have been targeting so-called shabiha militiamen, plainclothes enforcers who have a reputation of being both brutal and fiercely loyal to Assad.
In its coverage of official funerals, the state news agency never clarifies how the fallen were killed. That detail is often also omitted to surviving relatives, Syrians say.
One woman recounted the case of her brother, a soldier who was killed in March.
"We don't have any details regarding his death," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "We don’t know if he was killed by rebels, if he was killed in an explosion, or if he was trying to defect."
-- Rima Marrouch and Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Syrians inspect burned cars at the site of a blast in the capital, Damascus, on Thursday. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press